District Consolidation | Feature

Is School District Consolidation Worth the Cost?

Over the course of the last century the number of public school districts in the Untied States dropped from 117,108 in 1939 to just 13,629 in 2009, a decrease of nearly 90 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Proponents of district consolidation most often cite cost savings associated with economies of scale as the driving factor. But does consolidating districts save money? And what happens to any savings when you add educational technology into the mix?

"Especially at the beginning of the school consolidation era, which would be about 1920," said Marty Strange, a professor at Green Mountain College and former policy director at the Rural School and Community Trust (RSCT), "it was about improving schools by quite literally taking the schools out of the hands of non-professional bumpkins who were on the school boards and ran them and putting professional educators in charge."

By increasing school size, districts would be able to hire more professional teachers and administrators, while also offering more specialized curriculum, particularly at the high school level.

"On the surface most of the arguments are not economic," Strange said. "In reality, it's always about the money."

"School consolidation is often sold on the economic argument or promise that it will save money," said Brian Depew, director at the Center for Rural Affairs (CFRA).

But the promised savings often don't materialize, according to Depew, who points to research by RSCT comparing districts before and after consolidations.

In a 2010 article in The School Administrator, William Duncombe and John Yinger wrote that "consolidating districts may level up salaries and benefits to those of the most generous participating district, thereby raising personnel costs."

Depew noted factors such as "increased transportation costs, promised savings in administration often don't materialize, and then you often times have increased facilities costs as well if you build a new facility as part of a consolidated district."

Gary Loftis, a technology coordinator and physics and chemistry teacher at Lyons-Decatur Northeast (LDNE) said he has similar concerns about not only a possible new building in his district, but what may happen with the educational technology students there use if the district is consolidated.

LDNE, itself a consolidated district formed in 1984 when the Lyons and Decatur school districts merged, is now in the early stages of a possible consolidation with two neighboring districts, Oakland-Craig Public Schools and Tekamah-Herman Schools.

Lyons-Decatur Northeast is a technology-rich district, with a 1-to-1 computing program, using MacBooks, for students in grades 7-12, an Angel Learning Management System installation, a distance learning room, Vernier products in the science classes and a Google Apps for Education deployment.

"That doesn't take place in the other two schools," Loftis said. "Are we going to standardize all that classroom infrastructure?" If not, he said, "Lyons-Decatur students lose something that's been, I think, a great tool to use to be able to do some real-time science, some hands-on science that I would certainly now want to see go away."

Depew echoed that concern, saying there may be "one district coming into a consolidation saying, 'We have smartboards, we want smartboards in the new school,' and you have another district coming in saying 'we have a 1-to-1 laptop program, we want that.' These things are all good," but along with connectivity, other necessary infrastructure, and standardizing tools, services and protocols, may not be practical.

Support staff for the technology in LDNE may suffer as well. As part of the proposed merger, the communities would build a new school, using a possible $35 million bond levy, for students in grades 7-12. Plans under discussion call for cutting 13 or 14 staff and faculty and only include 1.5 technology support staff shared between the grade 7-12 school and three elementary schools.

That would include 1,200-1,300 students and "that's just not doable," according to Loftis, "if you want any kind of technology integration at all plus hardware support."

"So I don't think those savings are all there like they have on paper," Loftis said. "And that worries me when you sell something" at one price, "and yet it's going to be more because there's all this infrastructure that they haven't incorporated into it or budgeted for."

"Certainly there are districts that reach a size that is too small to practically operate, and in those cases [cost savings] may be a more legitimate argument," said Depew, " but most of the time when we see consolidation they're districts that in our view could continue to operate in a cost-competitive way."

For his part, Loftis said he is also not opposed to consolidation in all cases and, in fact, even supports consolidating LDNE and Oakland-Craig Schools. Oakland-Craig is only seven miles away from LDNE, whereas the new school would be 20 miles away.

Another option may be regionalization or unification, where smaller districts share certain resources and infrastructure without losing their autonomy.

Loftis said that it has not been discussed during the debate about consolidation, but that the districts could use the distance learning equipment and other technology they already have — both the other districts also have distance learning rooms — to provide one another with some of the efficiencies of consolidation, as well as course offerings that may be available at one district but not the others. With block scheduling and bussing students to a different building for part of the day or having teachers go from one school to another, the districts may be able to improve the learning experience for students with minimal disruption and cost.

"There's ways to think outside the box that I don't think have been approached," Loftis said.

Regarding the use of distance learning in lieu of consolidation, Strange said, "The key to using technology is to share not only teachers but to share students. If you only share teachers, you get a bunch of one-way communication where you broadcast a curriculum and everybody can tune in. That doesn't keep schools open."

But if you use the increased student body of shared resources among districts to bring in teachers for subjects that wouldn't otherwise be supportable, you're sharing students and interacting "among the communities and people can continue to have schools close to home even though not all of the faculty are close to home."

Strange said that, because of consolidation, "There are kids in West Virginia today, who are spending more time on the bus than they are inside the classroom. And that's just fundamentally wrong. Technology could play a role, maybe, in helping on that front."

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