Tag Archives: School District Consolidation

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.

How about making “local control” very local?

Proposals to drastically increase the size of school districts by force of law are being discussed in the Kansas Legislature. Some people oppose the idea on the ground that it would take away “local control” of education.

Start for a moment with the fact that “local control” isn’t quite what it appears. You’ve got the federal government using No Child Left Behind to nudge (some would say coerce) states and districts into certain actions. (The Obama Administration would make some changes that districts generally like, but even those changes still retain a federal role.) State government, meanwhile, imposes its requirements on schools as well. Oddly enough, the policy question that has gotten the most amount of attention over time–what the State Board of Education says should be taught in science classes–isn’t, strictly speaking, binding on districts. And what the state ought to impose on districts–a common chart of accounts and online disclosure of check registers–it doesn’t.

Now consider another question: If “local control” is important, why not make control as local as we can–invest the family with control? If you are a parent and you are dissatisfied with your child’s education in some way–you want him in or out of special education, you think she’s not being challenged, you don’t like his teacher–your options are limited. You can appeal to the school principal and perhaps other officials. But if you don’t get satisfaction that way, you’re more less stuck.

You are generally assigned to a school by your residence (see, for example, USD 259 Wichita), though in some cases you might be able to use a magnet school, which is a start in the right direction.

Kansas law also allows for a student in one district to enroll in another one (see the end of this post for the specific language), though it’s up to districts to agree to it, and students must play “Mother, may I?”

Kansas law also allows for charter schools, though the substance of the law means that charter schools are in effect little more than district magnet schools of another name rather than truly independent, alternative options.

So if, as a parent, you want some control over the environment your child is in, you have two expensive options: Pay private school tuition (after you’ve already paid taxes to the school your child won’t attend) or move to a new district. Your choice, under the current “district-of-residence” arrangement, is limited by what the political process (school board elections, state and federal rules, etc.) plays out. In that situation, “local control” is cold comfort.

To truly advance “local control,” we should recognize the primacy of parents by letting them take the money allocated on their children’s behalf to any willing school, whether or not it is operated by a local board of education. We should also have a charter school law that allows for these schools to be truly independent entities; that would also enhance “local” control.

Right now, the purest sense of “local” control in Kansas is the virtual school experience. Parents and their children can choose from a number of school districts that offer virtual schooling. If you don’t like what Basehor-Linwood is offering, you can try Lawrence, or another school, without having to move. But not everyone is cut out for or interested in that kind of schooling.

A final note: What about “local control” in sparsely populated areas? You might say “Being able to choose from a variety of schools is a good thing, but what about people in sparsely populated counties that have very few schools?” There’s no easy answer to that, admittedly, other than to note that a lack of many options in rural areas it not limited to schooling. Urban, suburban, rural, and, well, very rural environments all offer a variety of benefits, and limitations.

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Chapter 72.–SCHOOLSArticle 82.–ORGANIZATION, POWERS AND FINANCES OF BOARDS OF EDUCATION

72-8233. Interdistrict agreements for provision of educational programs authorized; conditions. (a) In accordance with the provisions of this section, the boards of education of any two or more unified school districts may make and enter into agreements providing for the attendance of pupils residing in one school district at school in kindergarten or any of the grades one through 12 maintained by any such other school district. The boards of education may also provide by agreement for the combination of enrollments for kindergarten or one or more grades, courses or units of instruction.

(b)   Prior to entering into any agreement under authority of this section, the board of education shall adopt a resolution declaring that it has made a determination that such an agreement should be made and that the making and entering into of such an agreement would be in the best interests of the educational system of the school district. Any such agreement is subject to the following conditions:

(1)   The agreement may be for any term not exceeding a term of five years.

(2)   The agreement shall be subject to change or termination by the legislature.

(3)   Within the limitations provided by law, the agreement may be changed or terminated by mutual agreement of the participating boards of education.

(4)   The agreement shall make provision for transportation of pupils to and from the school attended on every school day, for payment or sharing of the costs and expenses of pupil attendance at school, and for the authority and responsibility of the participating boards of education.

(c)   Provision by agreements entered into under authority of this section for the attendance of pupils at school in a school district of nonresidence of such pupils shall be deemed to be compliance with the kindergarten, grade, course and units of instruction requirements of law.

(d)   The board of education of any school district which enters into an agreement under authority of this section for the attendance of pupils at school in another school district may discontinue kindergarten or any or all of the grades, courses and units of instruction specified in the agreement for attendance of pupils enrolled in kindergarten or any such grades, courses and units of instruction at school in such other school district. Upon discontinuing kindergarten or any grade, course or unit of instruction under authority of this subsection, the board of education may close any school building or buildings operated or used for attendance by pupils enrolled in such discontinued kindergarten, grades, courses or units of instruction. The closing of any school building under authority of this subsection shall require a majority vote of the members of the board of education and shall require no other procedure or approval.

(e)   Pupils attending school in a school district of nonresidence of such pupils in accordance with an agreement made and entered into under authority of this section shall be counted as regularly enrolled in and attending school in the school district of residence of such pupils for the purpose of computations under the school district finance and quality performance act.

(f)   Pupils who satisfactorily complete grade 12 while in attendance at school in a school district of nonresidence of such pupils in accordance with the provisions of an agreement entered into under authority of this section shall be certified as having graduated from the school district of residence of such pupils unless otherwise provided for by the agreement.

History: L. 1984, ch. 261, § 1; L. 1984, ch. 262, § 1; L. 1991, ch. 220, § 5; L. 1992, ch. 280, § 47; L. 1994, ch. 36, § 1; L. 2002, ch. 167, § 7; July 1.

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.