Category Archives: School District Consolidation

In district size, how large is too large?

While people in various states debate whether school districts should consolidate, a less frequently asked question is, “how large is too large?” While doing some research on another question, I came across a list of the biggest school districts in the country.

During the 2003-2004 school year, 87 school districts had more than 50,000 students enrolled. (In Kansas, USD 259 Wichita ranked 91, at just under 49,000 students.)

At that size, economies of scale disappear and size becomes a liability rather than an asset.

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Children adjust to consolidation easier than teachers

As important as scholarly research is, sometimes it takes a rap for confirming the obvious. Here’s one such case. A study of school district consolidation in Arkansas says that if you look just at social factors, children have an easier time adjusting to district consolidation than adults.

The Rural Education blog at Education Week summarizes a report from the Journal of Research in Rural Education (PDF) as follows: “Students adjusted better than teachers to the social disruption” of consolidation.

The Mega District

A few more thoughts on school district consolidation. Mark Tallsman, lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, says that imposing a 10,000 student minimum size on school districts might require a district in northwest Kansas of 18 counties and 16,500 square miles. Assuming such a district was a perfect square, that would mean a district 128 miles long, on any side. (Assuming that all schools were centrally located and a student traveled in a straight line, the longest ride, from any of the four quarters, would be 92 miles.)

He’s probably right. I did some calculations of my own before I saw those remarks. I had wondered how big a district would have to be. Take a look at this county map, available on the KSDE website.  Take the nine counties that form a near-square shape: Cheyenne to Decatur, then south to Gove, west to Wallace, and back north to Cheyenne. In that territory, you’ve got 9,071 square miles (a square with 95-mile sides) and 4,300 students.

That doesn’t sound too attractive, so perhaps a smaller limit would be more appropriate for sparsely populated regions. Keep in mind that this assumes that schools will be moved to the center of each mega-district, which may not necessarily happen.

For my part, it seems like the literature suggests somewhere from 3,000 to 6,000 students are optimal, at least within the current configuration of 2,000 to 6,000 students. That means that if the Legislature considers consolidation moves for the smaller districts, it also ought to consider breaking up the larger districts, such as  259 Wichita, 512 Shawnee Mission, and 233 Olathe, each with over 25,000 students.

You can see a full list of districts and their 2008-09 enrollment here. Kansas had 295 districts, with:

  • 129 districts with 500 or fewer students
  • 112 with 400 or fewer
  • 78 with 300 or fewer
  • 35 with 200 or fewer
  • 9 with 100 or fewer

Here’s one other thing to keep in mind when thinking about district consolidation. When school board members talk about consolidation, it’s hard for them to keep the bigger picture of the state in mind. In fact, it’s in their job to think narrowly, to have utmost in their minds the preservation of the institutions they know best–the school district they govern, the schools it contains, and the administrators and staff it employs. This may or may not lead to bad decision-making processes, but it’s going to be there.

Are there Economies of Scale in School Districts?

Given the current laws and policies governing school districts, what is the most economically efficient size for a school district?

In 2002, Matthew Andrews, William Duncombe,  and John Yinger said the following:

The best of the cost function studies suggest that sizeable potential cost savings in instructional and administrative costs may exist by moving from a very small district (500 or fewer pupils) to a district with ca 2000–4000 pupils.

In 2007, two of those authors said there are savings from combining smaller districts, but they also offered a warning:

We find economies of size in operating spending: all else equal, doubling enrollment cuts operating costs per pupil by 61.7 percent for a 300-pupil district and by 49.6 percent for a 1,500-pupil district. Consolidation also involves large adjustment costs, however. These adjustment costs, which are particularly large for capital spending, lower net cost savings to 31.5 percent and 14.4 percent for a 300-pupil and a 1,500-pupil district, respectively. Overall, consolidation makes fiscal sense, particularly for very small districts, but states should avoid subsidizing unwarranted capital projects.

More recently, Standard and Poors evaluated school districts in Pennsylvania, said that diseconomies of scale kick in at about 3,000 students in a district.

Districts with fewer than 500 students spend an average of $9,674 per pupil in operating costs.3 As districts get larger, their per-pupil spending tends to decrease, until it reaches an average of $8,057 among districts with 2,500 – 2,999 students. However, average per-pupil spending tends to go back up again as enrollments exceed 3,000 students.

It concluded that Pennsylvania seek to consolidate districts so that they had an enrollment of about 2,500 to 3,000 students. Granted, Pennsylvania is not Kansas, but I suspect a similar logic is at work in Kansas. It is very similar to an analysis of district spending in Michigan.

Note, however, that an “adequacy” study of Wisconsin, which also found a u-shaped curve, put the optimal district size at close to 6,000 students. (Yes, I appreciate the irony of quoting a literature that I have had serious objections to.)

I’ll have more on this subject as time allows. Consolidation will certainly be an ongoing concern of Kansas legislators.

The U-Shaped Curve in Per-Pupil Spending: A View from Michigan

From a financial point of view, is there an optimal size of a school district?

In 2007, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy published a report on school district sizes in the state of Michigan. Now, Michigan is not Kansas, but looking at other states can give us some ideas of how district size and expenses interact?

Here’s the key paragraph from the executive summary of the report, titled, School District Consolidation, Size and Spending: an Evaluation

Based on the model developed for this paper, the most cost-effective size for school districts in Michigan is roughly 2,900 students. Both smaller and larger districts are likely to spend more per pupil, other things being equal. In light of this finding, it is correct to surmise that some Michigan public school districts are probably too small, and others too large, to operate with optimal cost efficiency.

The 2,900 enrollment is far lower than the 10,000 threshold of HB2728, but much larger than typical district in Kansas. According to the Kansas Comparative Performance and Fiscal System, the median sized district in 2008-2009 was 523.6 students.

What’s very interesting about the report, which uses regression analysis, is that it estimates that while consolidating some districts could save money, much more money could be saved by breaking up large districts. In fact, breaking up big districts could save 12 times the money of consolidation: $363 million, compared with $31 million per year.

How Large Should a District Be?

Here are some assorted thoughts on district size:

PAY: Not surprisingly, superintendents of larger districts are paid more. (Source: Education Week)

TOO BIG FOR FLORIDA?: In 2006, there was an unsuccessful move to break up that state’s large school districts, many of which take up an entire county. “Supporters of the initiative, which would allow current systems to split into as many as 18 separate districts, argued that the measure could eliminate bureaucracy and improve local control of schools. Opponents worried that the move could engender more racial and economic segregation in schools and districts.” (Source: Education Week)

EFFECT ON TEACHERS: Superintendents of larger districts tend to favor a more standardized approach. “Leaders of larger systems were more likely to favor standard approaches across their schools, such as “pacing guides” that show teachers what content to cover at what time throughout the year.”

EFFECTS ON DROP-OUTS: Does having larger districts make for worse educational outcomes? One scholar says so. “The results of the analysis indicate that decreasing the average size of a state’s school districts by 200 square miles leads to an increase of about 1.7 percentage points in its graduation rate.” (Manhattan Institute)

THE FUTURE IS BIGGER: Joseph M. Cronin, who has served as a top education official in Massachusetts and Illinois, speculates on what will happen in the next 10 years, writing from the vantage point of the year 2020. On the subject of district size, he says: “Public school superintendents and business managers of districts serving fewer than 1,500 students became an endangered species. The number of superintendents was slashed by 50 percent, while the average district size ballooned to include 5,000 students.” (Education Week)

CONSOLIDATION DOESN’T WORK EXCEPT WHEN IT DOES: “We found evidence to support several assertions in the literature, both supporting and opposing consolidation. ” (A University of Arkansas study of individuals involved in district consolidation in Arkansas).

WE DON’T KNOW: “Despite the dramatic scale and breakneck pace of these reforms, little is known about the consequences of district consolidation and the movement toward larger schools …. Of the handful of studies on the subject, a few find that students in smaller districts do better, while a few others find just the opposite. … I found that smaller schools had a significant positive effect on students’ wages as adults. … the findings presented here suggest that students who attended small schools fared better in the labor market. While there may have been modest gains associated with increasing the size of districts (or with other reforms adopted at the same time), these gains were far outweighed by the harmful effects of larger schools.” (Education Next)

Consolidation Heats Up

HB 2728 would greatly accelerate the pace of school district consolidation in Kansas. It is sponsored by Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Overland Park). The full bill is available on the Legislature’s web site in PDF form as an 8-page piece of legislation.

It requires all school districts to have an FTE enrollment of at least 10,000 students, and creates an ongoing mechanism (a once-a-decade consolidation requirement) to ensure that becomes the legally required minimum size of all districts in the state.

According to the Comparative Performance and Fiscal System database maintained by KSDE, only seven districts (out of approximately 300) in the state were that large as of the 2008-09 school year, that last year for which numbers are available. Those districts (district numbers in parenthesis) are:

  1. Wichita (259): 45,579.7 full-time equivalent students
  2. Shawnee Mission (512): 26,579.0
  3. Olathe (233): 25,190.1
  4. Blue Valley (229): 19,939.4
  5. Kansas City (500): 18,427.1
  6. Topeka (501): 12,903.4
  7. Lawrence (494): 10,418.4

Together, they enroll 148,618.6 FTE students, or one-third of the state’s total enrollment. (Source: Total Expenditure by District report, KSDE)

The legislation creates a “reorganization” commission to draw the lines. It would have 11 members who could draw on the help of KSDE as well and various legislative offices.

It also creates uniform requirements of what school boards will look like: 6 members elected on a ward system, and 1 elected in an at-large position. Local boards of education would keep a substantial amount of authority, as they would hire the superintendent, adopt budgets, establish policies, engage in strategic planning, and oversee the curriculum.

The legislation also establishes means for dealing with existing bond debt and other fiscal matters.

Regional education service centers (already in existence) would be responsible for bulk purchases of textbooks and other matters. They may gain substantial powers as a result of this act, though to be honest, I’m not sure what these organizations have the authority to do right now. The language of the bill seems to grant (or recognize) substantial authority, including the authority to develop tests, curriculums, professional development programs, ESL programs, special education programs, oversee student transportation (including scheduling bus routes), process payrolls, and prepare reports required by state or federal governments. Still, the legislation also calls for school districts to have central administrations (I’d prefer more use of school-based management) that have substantial authority.

One interesting feature is that the bill requires each district to provide distance learning, which may be a positive development (I’ve written favorably of the possibilities of online schooling).

Whatever you think about district consolidation, the bill has some strong measures related to accounting. For example, it requires school districts to use a common chart of accounts, which is not currently used, and institutes some reporting requirements. The goal is to make it easier for citizens and policy makers to compare districts. It takes some powers of accounting oversight away from KSDE and gives it to the Kansas State Board of Education, which I’m not sure is a positive development, given that the board has been a political football over the years.

The result would be a very different landscape. Currently, 298,996 students (using numbers from the 2008-2009 total expenditure report) attend districts that would have to be consolidated. Divide that number by 10,000 and you have 30 districts. Add those to the seven that already meet the standard, and you’re looking at 37 districts. I’d like to see some of the larger districts broken up, actually, which could mean a total number of perhaps 45 after the dust settles.

Don’t Confuse Means of Education for Its End

The other day, I noted that conversations about whether Kansas should have fewer school districts would inevitably focus on the wrong thing, such as whether consolidating districts would lead to the end of mascots (athletic teams), two rival towns having to send their kids to the same schools, or school employees losing their jobs.

For example, you’ll find these comments attached to a recent news article on the subject:

school consolidation only good on paper but it could effect small towns that depends on the schools for employment if they are consolidated, if this is the only way to save money let the community vote if they want to have thier local schools consolidated before its done by the state. I think that there is other ways to save money than consolidate schools.

Consolidating districts isn’t the only possible solution, and if the districts get too big, any cost savings might evaporate. On the other hand, the value of a discussion on consolidation is that it reminds us that as important as education is, running school districts as we have them now is a costly endeavor.

Providing children a chance to learn is the goal. We should be open to changing the means by which we do that as demographics, the economic climate, advances in technology and changes in preferences dictate.

Should Kansas Cut the Number of Districts in Half?

The Division of Legislative Post Audit released a report (108 pages in PDF) looking at the possibility of consolidating school districts.

Kansas Reporter, an effort sponsored by the Kansas Policy Institute, has a write-up that describes some of the main qualities of the report. The auditors said that the state might save $18 to $183 million. The latter number reflects cutting the number of districts down to 152, or half from just a few years ago.

Here are some (admittedly) scattered thoughts on the subject:

1. One curiosity about the report is that much of the savings stem from the state no longer having to pay “low-enrollment” weighting to districts–since those districts would be merged out of existence, into larger districts. There’s nothing sacred about the enrollment formula, however, meaning that some savings could be found apart from consolidation, simply by doing away with low-enrollment weighting. (Whether districts could be financially sustainable without that weighting, however, is another question.)

2. The state’s fiscal crisis may be an occasion not only for rethinking the number of districts in the state, but how the state funds education. The flow of funding is unnecessarily complex, trying to achieve many things at once. One alternative is to shift all funding to the state, and employ weighted student funding, so that, for example, every student carries a given amount of money with him to the school of his choice. The “weighted” in “weighted student funding” could be used so that, say, students who were academically deficit could be “worth more” to a school.

3. What’s the best way for organizations to consolidate? Consolidation occurs all the time in industry: Spring and Nextel; Exxon and Mobil; and the former “Big 8” accounting firms are but a few examples. In those cases, however, the mergers are in response to market pressures. In the case of schools, mergers would be due to political pressures–namely, the plummeting fortunes of the state budget.

4. The possibility of district consolidation may be an occasion for everyone to rethink the way we “do” education. Virtual schooling may play a hand in educating children in sparsely populated areas, for example. Education entrepreneurs might also come up with new business models of schools–say, by developing something along the lines of a “charter district.”

5. Finally, some of the concerns about consolidation are legitimate–long bus rides, and whether resulting school buildings might be “too big.” But other concerns–losing sports rivalries, losing jobs, etc.–reflect the fact that public schooling is often about more than seeing to it that children have an opportunity to learn.

Comparing Kansas District Numbers to Other States

Since the topic of school district consolidation comes up from time to time in Kansas, I’ve been looking through some national statistics. Here I’m going to present a few observations.

How many districts are in each state?

  1. There’s a wide number of school districts across states. One state, Hawaii, has but one district. On the other end, everything really is bigger in Texas, including the number of districts: 1,243.
  2. The “average” state (using the median state) has 204 districts.
  3. Kansas (as of the 2007-08 school year) had 302 districts, meaning that it has more districts than the average state. But its population density is less than half of the national average, so that’s not surprising: You may need more districts if you don’t want to bus students for long distances.

What’s the typical number of students in a district?

  1. The median state had 2,851 students per district.
  2. Kansas has fewer–1,551 students per district.

How many students are in each school?

A number of education schools think that smaller schools are better for students.

  1. The median state has 445 students per school.
  2. Kansas has 321 students per school.

Comparing Kansas to states with a similar population density

Given the current model of “doing school,” in which students are bussed to bricks-and-mortar schools, population density has a role to play in deciding how many schools that can be supported.

Population across the states ranges from a low of one person per mile in Alaska to 1,176 per person in New Jersey. The median state has 450 people per square mile. Kansas is on the less-dense side of the scale, with 33 people per square mile.

One way to put the number of Kansas school districts is to compare the state with other states with similar population densities. So I looked for states that have a population density that is equal to that of Kansas, plus or minus 33 percent. Here’s what I found:

  • Colorado
  • Idaho
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada*
  • Oregon
  • Utah

Kansas has more districts than any state in the comparison group

Kansas has the most number of districts of the six states. As of 2007-08, it had 302. The state with the next largest, Nebraska, had 258. The median for the six states was 183 districts.

Kansas has the second-lowest number of students per district

Nebraska had the least number of students in an “average” district, at 1,129. Kansas was had the second-lowest number, at 1,551. Given the number of districts, that’s not surprising.

Kansas has the second-most number of schools

Colorado lead the pack with 1,783 schools. Kansas had 1,461, and the median state had 1,194.

Kansas has the second-lowest number of students per school

Nebraska has 244 students per school, on average. Kansas has 321.

Bonus observation: Kansas has more counties than any of the comparison states

Kansas has 105 counties, far more than any of the comparison states. Colorado, with a strong tradition of county governance, has only 64, or nearly 40 percent fewer. Nebraska has 93. Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah, have 44, 17, 36, and 29, respectively.

A warning:

Note that the U.S.government is a significant (perhaps a majority) landowner in Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and and perhaps Oregon, a fact that might affect the number of counties.

Conclusions

Finding the “right” number of schools and school authorities (in this case, districts) would best be determined in a market of people freely buying and selling educational services. We don’t, however, have that situation.  Instead, we have political control over every aspect of schooling, including funding levels, student assignments to schools (often by boundaries rather than choice), and curricula.

With that in mind, it might be useful to compare Kansas to other states on a number of measures, including the number of schools and school districts. The numbers suggest that Kansas, relative to the states selected for having a similar population density, has too many school districts. It might also have too many schools, but I’d want to research the literature on the “ideal” school size, which has been the subject of various experiments funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other education reform groups.

* Nevada fell just under the 66 percent mark, but it was so close that I included it.

How Many Districts Per State? How Many Churches?

The idea of school district consolidation comes up from time to time, and with good reason. School administrators don’t teach children, teachers do. How many districts does Kansas need?

But first let’s ask another question. “How many churches does Kansas need?” Or how about, “How many grocery stores does Kansas need?” The answer: As many–or as few–as people want. They express their preferences by attendance and donations, in the case of churches, and by purchases, in the case of grocery stores.

There’s no need for legislative hearings or blue-ribbon panels when it comes to meeting human needs for spiritual expression or obtaining food.

But there are plenty of hearings when it comes to education. Why? Because, at least for children under 18, education is funded almost entirely through the political process. Property taxes, for the most part, go to education. Some portion of sales and income taxes, do, too, as well as numerous special taxes. And of course, questions about what to tax (the “base,” which may be wages, investment income, property wealth, etc.), how to tax (sales tax, income t ax),  and how much to tax (the rate) are inevitably political questions.

So on the income side, education is a political animal. And it’s political in another way: Once governments collect money in the name of education, the money has to be spent somehow.This may or may not be done at a government institution. Money in the Pell Grant program? Spent at public or private universities. Money parents can claim as a tax credit for early childhood education? Spent at public or private schools. Money allocated for food stamps? Spent at Dillons, Wal-Mart or any number of other privately owned companies, and certainly not at stores operated at the Department of Grocery Stores.

When it comes to education of children between ages 5 and 18, however, the money can be spent only at certain institutions, called “public schools

But only certain institutions–“public schools”–can receive the money collected through taxes for the purpose of education. Naturally, that makes them subject to the political process. A bevy of politicians, ranging from an elected local school board to the United States Congress, leave their mark on institutions that in spirit and in fact are units of government, which is to say, subject to politics.

So back to the question: How many districts does Kansas need? Politicians may consult science, but at the end of the day, political decisions are answered on the basis of which groups have political power, what group can get its value system or economic interests recognized, and what comes out of the hurly burly of political debate.

Coming up: A look at how some states have addressed the question of school districts.

More on District Consolidation–from Pennsylvania

My friends at Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Foundation offer another cautionary commentary about district consolidation.

—————-

In the movie Men in Black, Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) carries a small device that flashes, allowing him to make people forget meeting him (or seeing aliens).  Gov. Rendell may have a similar device, to use on legislators—or on himself.

In his budget address, he called on lawmakers to form a commission to study the issue of consolidating school districts, and present recommendations.  Gov. Rendell seems to have forgotten that the General Assembly commissioned a study on school district consolidation a mere two years ago.

This study concluded that school district consolidation would not be much of a cost saver. While some of the small districts might become more efficient, school districts above 3,000 students tend to be less efficient.  This coincides with research done by Andrew Coulson, who found that districts of about 2,900 students are the most cost efficient. That legislative study concluded that there were only 88 districts ripe for consolidation, into 34 districts, a reduction of 54 districts—a far cry from Governor Rendell’s desire to consolidate 500 districts into 100.

An Allegheny Institute analysis notes that consolidation to 100 districts would mean an average district size of 17,000 students.  Only five districts currently have 17,000 or more students, and spend an average of $14,500 per pupil—about $1,200 more than the state average.  They also note that these districts have some of the worst academic performance in the state.  Research by Jay Greene and Marcus Winters further indicates that having fewer, larger districts results in a higher percentage of student dropout and reduces graduation rates.

Across Pennsylvania, the largest fifth of districts (with Philadelphia excluded) spend substantially more per pupil than those middle-size districts. The per-pupil costs in the smallest fifth of districts are also above average, but those districts’ combined budgets account for only about 6% of total spending.  Where school districts are concerned, the evidence suggests the opposite: consolidating small and medium-sized districts into larger districts would reduce efficiency and increase costs to taxpayers.

Spending Per Pupil by Pennsylvania School Districts 2007-08
Districts By Enrollment Avg. Enrollment Total Expenditures Instruction Support Services Non-Instructional Construction and Debt
Top 100 7,334 $13,686.68 $7,909.17 $3,975.20 $186.59 $1,615.72
Second 100 3,480 $12,898.78 $7,271.51 $3,806.27 $218.29 $1,602.71
Middle 100 2,281 $12,395.51 $6,902.11 $3,680.88 $223.41 $1,589.12
Fourth 100 1,508 $12,528.66 $7,026.49 $3,706.68 $249.84 $1,545.65
Bottom 99 856 $13,793.50 $7,581.23 $4,056.78 $268.18 $1,887.31
Districts By Enrollment Avg. Enrollment Administration Business Maintenance
of Plant
Student
Transportation
Top 100 7,334 $749.46 $137.30 $1,178.83 $705.28
Second 100 3,480 $730.25 $160.50 $1,134.01 $688.30
Middle 100 2,281 $759.00 $169.48 $1,089.09 $693.42
Fourth 100 1,508 $754.77 $176.89 $1,089.69 $721.48
Bottom 99 856 $932.68 $235.24 $1,149.85 $740.82
Exclude largest (Philadelphia) and smallest (Bryn Athyn) districts in PA
Source: Pennsylvania Department of Education; Calculations by the Commonwealth Foundation

Why would consolidation fail to achieve the cost savings Gov. Rendell hopes for? While measures such as bulk purchasing and cross-district health trusts are sensible cost-savings measures, these can already occur without consolidation.  It’s possible that some administrative savings might materialize, but it won’t help that some superintendents will become “assistant superintendents” and others will expect large raises.   The notion that larger districts have fewer administrators per pupil runs counter to experience.

The single largest school cost item (about half of every district’s budget) is teacher salaries and benefits.  These would become standardized over the newly merged districts.  Does anyone believe that salaries will be standardized at any level lower than the highest prevailing in the county?

As long as school board directors can negotiate contracts in secret and vote on them without any chance for public comment, it hardly matters whether the district represents a small area or a large county.

If cost savings is truly a goal for Pennsylvania schools, a good first step would be greater transparency.  The public should have access to greater information about how school districts spend tax dollars and adequate information as contracts are being negotiated. SchoolBoardTransparency.org was launched with just such a goal in mind.

Another good step is expanding school choice options, which cost far less than traditional public schools.  Charter and cyber schools typically cost taxpayers only about 70% of the cost of district-run schools, while Pennsylvania’s Education Improvement Tax Credit sends students to the school of their choice with scholarships worth less than one-tenth the cost of traditional public schools.

Gov. Rendell hopes that lawmakers forgot the research finding consolidation would not provide savings to taxpayers.  His plan fails to address real reform that can reduce costs and improve the quality of schools.

A Warning from Pennsylvania About District Consolidation

My friends at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy warns Pennsylvania residents about expecting too much from efforts to consolidate school districts there. My own thoughts after their words.

The Governor’s recent budget message had a proposal that is cause for concern. He wants to explore the possibility of consolidating the state’s 500 school districts to something he thinks is more manageable, say 100. The Governor claims this will achieve efficiency and reduce the tax burden on property owners.

Some background: Currently there are more than 1.7 million public school students in the Commonwealth’s 500 districts. If the number of districts were to be reduced to 100, that would mean each district would have more than 17,000 students on average. As of 2007, the Department of Education showed that only seven districts contain more than 13,000 students—Philadelphia has over 200,000 and Pittsburgh’s enrollment is just above 26,000. There are 78 districts that enroll more than 5,000 students, while the vast majority of districts (432) have fewer than that. Thus, the consolidation proposal will increase the average district size enormously.

If the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh districts are any indication of the effects of creating larger districts, taxpayers and parents of students should be wary. The Pittsburgh Public School District currently spends approximately $20,000 per student with district-wide reading and math proficiencies around 50 percent and several high schools with proficiency scores under 20 percent. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia District spends $15,000 per pupil and has district-wide proficiency levels under 50 percent. The notion that bigger districts will mean lower costs and better performance is not supported by the state’s two largest districts.

Beyond the questionable assertion that bigger is better, there are a number of interest groups that are likely to create serious obstacles; first the teachers’ unions. If, for example, five districts are to be merged and they have teacher contracts with widely different pay scales and benefit packages, it could be very expensive to bring the lower paid teachers to the level of the higher paid district’s teachers. And, it is certain that the higher paid teachers will never agree to pay cuts. The equalization of pay rates will undoubtedly raise costs to taxpayers. Moreover, teachers will be strongly opposed to any plan that calls for reducing the number of teachers. And how will the new district deal with seniority issues? Not well if the airline experience is any guide. Add to the salary cost the need to equalize benefits, time off rules, etc., and the costs begin to become prohibitive. Indeed, it is the advent of strong teacher unions since the 1960s that have forever changed the landscape in terms of further consolidation such as had occurred previously.

The Governor will also likely find resistance in many if not most communities across the state. Consolidating small rural districts so that the new district has a much larger number of students will likely require students, especially high school students who will be concentrated in perhaps just two or three locations, to travel very long distances each school day. Parents will rightly be concerned over the busing of their children such large distances and away from familiar surroundings. Thus, they are potentially strong opponents of consolidation on the vast scale contemplated by the Governor.

There are several Pennsylvania counties with fewer than 2,000 students. A consolidation to get to a district of just 6,000 to 7,000 would of necessity cover a huge geographic area. Local governance would be extraordinarily difficult.

Then too, many existing districts are very proud of their schools, sports teams, bands, etc. and will not look favorably on having their identity taken away in a massive consolidation.

In those school districts where the ability to provide adequate local financial support is simply not there, it might make sense for the state to look for consolidation opportunities. But the notion that a massive, widespread and far–reaching consolidation of school districts is the right answer is simply misguided.

If the Governor and his education experts want to do something truly meaningful to save money and produce better education results, why not introduce real change? Create a voucher program that would give parents the choice of where to send their children, including private schools. The voucher would be funded by the state and the local district at 75 percent of the instructional cost reported by the district. Poorly performing schools would have to do better or lose students to the point of being forced to close. Bear in mind that the Pennsylvania Constitution requires the state to provide a system of thorough and efficient education. It does not require the state to operate a public school monopoly.

The proposal to reduce the number of school districts in the Commonwealth by 80 percent to cut expenses will undoubtedly meet with substantial resistance. Some of it based on valid argument, some not. But the important point is that the consolidation proposal is a distraction intended to prevent policy makers from dealing meaningfully with the costs of education and the extremely poor performance in many districts. Introducing competition and choice into the system makes enormous sense. Unfortunately, the powerful groups who dictate education policy in the state are committed to making sure reasonable reforms never happen.

My own take: There are certainly substantial costs of and difficulties in consolidating districts, as the essay above points out. If saving money is the big concern, policy makers can save taxpayer money by letting parents take a portion of education funds to private schools, which generally spend less than public schools.

The Limits of District Consolidation

My friends at the Commonwealth Foundation point out the limits of school district consolidation. They cite yet another author on the subject, who offers some wise counsel:

“the notion that creating larger administrative units will significantly reduce the actual number of administrators runs counter to experience.  It won’t help that some superintendents becomes “assistant superintendents” if everybody involved expects raises.”

What Happens When Schools Consolidate?

What happens in schools and school districts consolidate? Some scholars at the University of Arkansas ask that question, and find some results that are both predictable and interesting.

A Phenomenological Study of School Consolidation

Flint Hills on Consolidation

The Garden City Telegram (“Consolidation not likely option for crowding,” 9/5/07) referenced our work on school district consolidation.

Here’s how it starts: “Even if USD 457 found a nearby school district that wanted to consolidate — which is unlikely, according to several nearby superintendents — it probably wouldn’t solve the facility problems Garden City High School is facing, members of a study group said Tuesday night.”

It then talks about the mechanics of consolidation–it would require sending up to 500 students to another school district, perhaps straining their facilities–and mentions that would-be candidates are not interested.

The article drops in our own concerns: ”

“In a report from the Flint Hills Center for Public Policy, a Kansas-based nonprofit think tank, policy fellow John LaPlante wrote that proponents favor consolidation because they see it as a cost-saving measure. Additional arguments are that it can provide a greater base for specialized offerings and that teacher pay can be higher in a larger, better-funded district, he wrote.

However, the plan doesn’t necessarily save a lot of money, and it can cause harm by reducing the amount of competition between schools, he wrote.”

If you’d like to see our report, you can find it (PDF) here.

There are other options for addressing the problems of bursting-at-capacity, including private/public partnerships for new facilities and giving some students the opportunity to attend virtual schools, which require few bricks-and-mortal projects.

Cooperation, not Consolidation

Bigger isn’t always better when it comes to school districts, as we’ve explained in the study School Consolidation: An Ineffective Way of Improving Education (PDF) . So some news out of western Kansas is good: two districts will gain some benefits from sharing services, without going into full-fledged consolidation.

USD 292 Grainfield and USD 291 Grinnell will share some services.

“While both districts will retain individual elementary schools, fifth- through eighth-graders will attend school in Grinnell, and high school students will continue their education in Grainfield.

This agreement is not a consolidation; both districts will continue operating on an individual basis.

“It’s not a consolidation in that, with consolidation you end up having one governing entity — one board of education, one budget. The facilities would all be under one district,” said Rose Kane, USD 291 superintendent and administrator. ‘We still have two separate, operating districts.'”

The benefits of the move include expanded course offerings for high school students and greater flexibility in scheduling classes.

School districts prepare for first year of cooperation, Hays Daily news, August 8.

School Buildings Reused

Declining enrollment in many Kansas school districts brings up the question: what to do with the old buildings? Here’s one idea from eastern Kansas: reuse them as homes and studios.

Ron Miller and Nikol Lohr paid USD 330 (FTE: 523 students) $65,000 for the former high school and elementary schools buildings in Harveyville, along with 9.5 acres of land. They also bought in Eskridge, getting 2 acres with a high school and elementary school for an undisclosed sum.

As Lorh said: “Kansas had so many (schools) available and they were affordable.” Miller and Lohr, artists, hope to create a place for artists to gather. They already have some artists-in-residence at one of the Harveyville buildings.

Source: Artists see potential in old Kansas school buildings, Kansas City Star, November 24, 2006.

Population Losses Continue

TV station WIBW notes that population is declining in some parts of Kansas.

Nothing new there, but it’s worth remembering.

“Kansas Association of School Boards demographer Jim Hays says almost 60 percent of the state’s 300 school districts lost enrollment last year.”

Further, the report says, between 2000 and 2005, the following counties lost at least 10 percent of their population: Jewell, Geary, Greeley, Lane, Ness, Republic, Scott, and Wallace.

Expect calls for district consolidation to continue. Rather than expand districts to the size of counties, perhaps it’s time for us to start thinking of alternative ways of delivering education.

School Consolidation Bill

From the Wichita Industry and Business Association:

SB 525—MANDATED SCHOOL CONSOLIDATION

SB 525 would amend the state’s school finance formula regarding the new facilities weighting and the capital improvements aid program. The bill would provide that the facilities weighting would not be assigned to
any new school facilities unless the school district had consolidated with another district after June 30, 2006 or an election to issue bonds to finance the new facility was approved prior to June 30, 2006. The bill prohibits any new school facilities used primarily as a sports facility from receiving this facility weighting.

Also, SB 525 would prohibit distribution of state aid from the school district capital improvements aid program unless the district had consolidated with another district after June 30, 2006, or an election to approve issuance of bonds to make improvements had been approved prior to June 30, 2006. This provision also prohibits state aid through this program to assist with the financing of improvements to any facilities used primarily as a sports facility. [Emphasis added]

Sounds like a heavy-handed approach: if you want state aid for a new building …. No, if you want state aid for capital improvements … You must merge.

Yes, there is an opt-out for voters who wish to kick in their own funds for the improvements or new facilities–but only if they vote by the end of June in 2006.

This would be a worrisome development. Now, it’s not necessarily a good thing that capital project X, Y, or Z take place. But the move towards consolidation is not necessarily a good one, either.

For those who wish to read further, the text of the bill, in PDF, is here. The (PDF) fiscal note for the bill makes its draconian powers clear: After FY 2008, “districts would no longer be eligible for the [new facilities weighting and capital improvements] program without consolidating with another district.”