The consolidation of school districts is an increasingly interesting phenomenon for everyone involved. In the last century, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that out of the 117, 108 schools in 1939 only 13, 862 remained in 2006. That marked an 88% decrease in school districts during that time.
Although the pace of consolidation has slowed since 2006, there are at least a few school districts consolidating every year in almost every state, and the phenomenon continues to attract attention.
On one side, proponents of school district consolidation often cite the cost savings realized after consolidation. However, even with the economies of scale brought about by the merger does the consolidation save the district’s money?
Also, if there are any significant savings occasioned by consolidation, do they still count after factoring in educational technology investments? Let’s explore the real cost of school district consolidation.
The Cost Of School District Consolidation
The majority of states implement policies that favor school district debt consolidation. One of the most popular policies adopted by many states is the state aid program. The program is structured in a way that encourages district reorganization by availing funds that support the reorganization and consolidation of school districts.
The capital injected through the program is significant. Marty Strange, a Green Mountain College professor, notes that the aid program and policies were initially meant to improve the schools. When school consolidation started in earnest back in 1920, the capital surplus realized from consolidations took the schools away from the hands of non-professional administrations and into the hands of professional educators.
In essence, by consolidating school districts, enough funds become available to hire professional teachers and administrators. Moreover, the injection of funds also allows schools to introduce specialized curriculum targeting special needs students.
It, therefore, appears that money is the biggest factor for proponents of school district consolidation. However, many contradictions arising from consolidation and state policies that push for it. For instance, some states have an operating aid formula that rewards school districts with low population density effectively discouraging consolidation.
The problem is, even when more capital is injected into consolidated school districts, the effect is often a phantom one. There are no notable changes in a school district before consolidation and after consolidation.
There is evidence of the economic folly that is school district consolidation. A 2010 article featured in The School Administrator notes that while consolidation may lead to increased remuneration for teachers thereby attracting qualified teachers, it also raised personnel costs for the consolidating districts.
As such, Depew, the director at the Center for Rural Affairs (CFRA), notes consolidation births an increase in transportation costs, while the promise of savings in administration are miscarried almost immediately after the consolidation. What never fails to come with a school district consolidation is the unwelcome increase in expenditure, especially when the consolidation triggers the construction of new facilities.
The economies of scale expected after a consolidation never materialize. Economies of scale, when applied to school district consolidation, would come into play when the spending per pupil declines as the number of pupils increases. In a perfect world, consolidating two school districts would increase the number of students, thus lowering the overall school expenses since the consolidation creates a large school.
Take the peculiar circumstances Gary Loftis finds himself in. Loftis is a technology coordinator at Lyons-Decatur Northeast (LDNE). He also doubles as the physics and chemistry teacher at the school. Loftis is aware that LDNE was a direct consequence of the merger of two school districts back in1984.
Today, Loftis is facing the real possibility of LDNE consolidating with two neighboring school districts. The implications of the consolidation frighten Loftis. He knows that after the consolidation the once technology-rich LDNE will take a hit.
The neighboring school districts do not take technology education as seriously as LDNE takes it. With a consolidation, it seems all too likely that the 1-to-1 computing lessons Loftis and his students were accustomed to will be no more.
There are no talks of standardizing classroom structures after the consolidation. Hence, Lyons-Decatur students stand to lose a lot after the consolidation. The same situation occurs every time school districts consolidate. Each school, after the consolidation, wants to enjoy the same facilities as the nearby school. The result is a strain on any funds that emerged after the consolidation diminishing the fiscal benefits imagined from merging several school districts.
For the students, consolidating two school districts brings new challenges. The students have to adapt to a new learning environment introduced through the consolidation. The example of the LDNE school district springs up again. Students in the LDNE school district were used to education technology. The school district goes out of its way to ensure each student has access to a MacBook.
With looming school district consolidation, the students may not be able to access these Macbook and other technological facilities currently offered by their school. The resources will be stretched across a larger group of students meaning some of them might miss out on such facilities.
In that case, academic performance for the LDNE district students will suffer significantly. In fact, it is not farfetched to assume only a small fraction of LDNE students will make it to college or get the chance to take a student’s loan in college.
It is for those reasons that school district consolidations need further scrutiny. We cannot assume that since the consolidation of school districts helped raise education funds in the past, it will have the same effects today.
What’s even more alarming is that some school districts may be in debt and carry these debts into the merger. If such a situation occurs, one has to think of options to consolidate your debts if you are in the administration of the newly formed school district.
While easy methods of consolidation exist, it is practically impossible to have a school district without baggage. The baggage may be in the form of government debts, mismanagement in the administration, or even lack of facilities. Therefore, it is important to rethink the school district consolidation model, because today, the cost of consolidation far outweighs the benefits that come with it.