Still Too Many Schools?

By: - March 22, 2010 12:00 am

Consolidation has been a blessing of sorts for Regional School Unit 12, a cluster of 2100 students living in eight small towns near the coast of southern Maine. The eight schools in those towns used to be governed by no less than ten school boards-including a five-member board for the district of Somerville, home to only 40 students. Most local officials wanted to keep it that way.

But after change was forced in 2007, by mandate of state law, some of the economies of scale promised by consolidation advocates proved to be real. No longer obligated to maintain ten independent administrations, the larger district has been able to expand offerings to students-more advanced placement classes, increased access to guidance counselors and improved services for special needs students-even in the face of a $1.7 million drop in state funding for Unit 12 this year.

Still, as in many parts of Maine, consolidation has been fairly messy and remains a work in progress. While the district has been able to cut the $1.7 million the state wanted it to shed through consolidation, actual administrative savings have only totaled around $150,000. “For $1.7 million to be expected in year one, everyone involved immediately saw how ludicrous that was,” says Superintendent Greg Potter. 

Contracts for Unit 12 teachers and support staff are still being haggled over in negotiations with ten different labor units, and the district hasn’t been able to get voters to formally approve a budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30. “There are a lot of people out there who don’t particularly like consolidation, and that’s coming through at the polls whenever they have a chance to vote on anything related to schools,” says Potter, who is working on his fifth budget proposal this year alone. The district has spent $40,000 just putting together these budgets and bringing them before voters.

“We’ve gotten off to a very rocky start,” admits State Senator Justin Alfond, a Democrat who chairs the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs. “Time will tell whether school district consolidation in the state of Maine was a success or not. Policies as large as this take time.”

As states become determined to keep more school money inside the classroom, rather than in an administrative office, they are beginning to turn to the thorny issue of consolidation as a way to save on administrative costs.  Maine is only one example. Vermont is considering a range of proposals that would dramatically reduce its number of school districts, and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has asked a blue-ribbon commission to come up with a plan for reducing the state’s number of school districts by a third.

“If you picture a state with 82 counties and 152 school districts you start to see part of the problem,” says Dan Turner, a spokesman for Barbour. “This is both an educational opportunity and an economic necessity.” The governor’s office claims that the change will save $65 million, but acknowledges that as a “guesstimate.” 

Consolidation of anything related to schools is notoriously difficult, and doesn’t always turn out to provide the fiscal windfall states hope for. Implementation is fraught with complexities, as the Maine example illustrates, and communities worry about the possibility of local schools closing even when it’s promised that proposed changes would be largely administrative.

“It’s very easy to conflate consolidating school districts with consolidating schools,” says Jennifer Bradley, a senior research associate at the Brookings Institution. “The subject seems to drop straight to, ‘We’re going to lose our football team.’ I don’t think anybody particularly rallies around their school district administration building.”

Still, for communities such as Somerville in Maine, the distinction between school districts and schools is largely a technical one. Somerville contains only one school, which until recently comprised its own district. Advocates for rural schools say administrative consolidation efforts make it far more likely that places such as Somerville will ultimately be forced to close their schools by a less sympathetic regional school board, with dramatic implications for their local economies.

“It’s never about district consolidation, even when they say it is; it’s always about closing schools,” says Marty Strange, policy program director at the Rural School and Community Trust. “School district consolidation is just a shoehorn. It’s a lot more pleasant to talk about off wasteful administrators than it is to talk about laying off someone’s child’s teacher.”

Arkansas initiated a school district consolidation effort in 2004 in response to a state Supreme Court ruling that challenged its school funding formula. Originally, the plan was for a minimum district size of 1500 students; the milder law that eventually passed required districts to consolidate only if they dip below a minimum of 350 students for two consecutive years. But even that change brought the state down to 244 districts from 310-which has led to school closures in a number of communities.

School districts in many small Arkansas towns include only one school, so district consolidation and school consolidation are often synonymous. Julie Thompson, director of communications for the state Department of Education, says that consolidation has helped provide students in some small towns with academic opportunities they wouldn’t have had otherwise. But she concedes there are serious problems.

“Anecdotally, there have been administrative type savings, but it hasn’t always been easy,” she says. “There have been some very painful transitions that communities have gone through as school buildings have closed down. But it’s the only way that they can afford to provide a quality education for their students.”

Brookings and the National Governors Association are among the national groups that have begun encouraging states to take a serious look at some form of school consolidation as a way to offset funding cuts to K-12 education and to keep as much money as possible in the classroom. “We are in such a financial crisis in this country that we can’t afford to worry anymore about some of these considerations that in light of the financial situation appear minor,” says John Thomasian, director of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices. “Now that we are in such a clear and long-run fiscal climate of austerity, issues like school district consolidation have to be taken straight on.”

But savings in school administration have been difficult for states to achieve because of the limited control the states have over how school districts spend their money. According to an October 2009 survey by the American Association of School Administrators, more districts have cut core subject teachers to cope with budget cuts than have cut central office or administration personnel.  For the current school year, 42 percent of the districts surveyed reported cutting core subject teachers, while 32 percent reported cutting administrative personnel.  Next year, 36 percent of districts plan to cut additional core subject teachers, while only 20 percent plan to cut central office or administration personnel.

Even advocates of consolidation, such as Thomasian and Bradley, acknowledge that the savings potential of these initiatives can be somewhat unclear. When states such as Maine pair significant cuts with massive reorganization plans, it can be difficult to tell savings from outright cuts.  “States don’t go into budget cutting as a clinical test,” says Thomasian. “We don’t have control groups, so a lot of it gets mixed together. That’s why a lot of the research to date on school district consolidation has been mixed.”

States can approach school district consolidation in a number of different ways-using carrots, sticks or changing funding formulas to encourage rural districts to consolidate. Maine’s approach has been controversial because it mandates consolidation, instead of offering incentives to districts to merge voluntarily, and threatens noncompliant districts with financial penalties. Districts are required to find willing partners to merge with, submit plans to the state Department of Education and then put the plans before voters for final approval. Maine is now down to 215 school units from 290, though that is far from its ultimate goal of 80 regional units. 

The state’s consolidation law survived a statewide referendum that would have repealed it in November, but individual consolidation plans have not fared as well at the polls among the voters whose children they would affect. Voters have rejected Department of Education-approved plans in 107 districts. In the face of these odds, the Department and the legislature have tweaked the requirements a number of times, shifting deadlines, putting off penalties, adjusting minimum enrollment requirements and exempting 19 districts from consolidation altogether. 

A proposal that passed the legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs last week would loosen the rules even more by increasing the Education Commissioner’s freedom to exempt districts that have jumped through a certain number of hoops and enabling districts unhappy with their new partners to withdraw after a period of time if the consolidations aren’t working. “We’ve learned that the cookie cutter approach isn’t going to work,” says Alfond. “You’ve got to be flexible.” 

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Melissa Maynard

Melissa Maynard oversees the Pew state fiscal health project’s Fiscal 50 online resource, which helps policymakers understand fiscal, economic, and demographic trends affecting their states by tracking tax revenue, reserves, employment rates, Medicaid spending, and other issues important to long-term fiscal health.