With education funding certain to be a major issue this next legislative session, you can be certain that “consolidation” will be suggested as a way to reduce administrative costs and put more money into children’s classrooms. Governor Mary Fallin has already shown her hand on the subject, saying that consolidation will definitely be on the table this year.
The mere mention of the word “consolidation” stirs passions on both sides of the debate. Some think it is the answer to our education funding problems, while others are convinced it will kill communities and keep kids on buses for two to three hours a day. What’s less understood and not often reported is that Oklahoma policymakers and school leaders have been working on reducing school administrative costs in a variety of ways, including consolidation, for years.
Two approaches are typically employed to reduce administrative costs in public schools – school consolidation and administrative consolidation. School consolidation is the merger of two or more existing districts to create a new district, which is empowered to close down and merge individual schools. Administrative consolidation involves combining multiple districts under one superintendent or combining other administrative functions, with no individual school sites being shut down in the process.
There are currently 521 school districts in Oklahoma. While this is far fewer than the 5,656 districts at the time of statehood, it still ranks Oklahoma eighth nationally for school districts per capita. Since 1977, there have been more than 100 school consolidations or annexations. The School Consolidation Assistance Fund, established as part of the landmark HB 1017 legislation in 1990, serves as an incentive for school districts to consolidate voluntarily. Consolidating districts can receive up to $500,000, in addition to the per pupil funds of the consolidated students. This payment is intended to deal with the administrative and transportation costs associated with the consolidation. The assistance fund currently has more than $6 million available.
In 2011, the Legislature passed a bill to incentivize administrative consolidation. Under HB 2115, districts that share a superintendent can receive half of the superintendent’s salary for the first three years with money from the School Consolidation Assistance Fund. Six schools have utilized this incentive and are now sharing a superintendent.
Many people are unaware of how extensively small schools across the state already share administrative services. From alternative education programs to special education services, grant writing, and guidance counselors, small schools find many ways to reduce costs and utilize economies of scale to lower administrative costs. Purchasing is another important area of shared services. Many schools across the state have formed purchasing cooperatives to buy in bulk at cheaper rates.
The progress we’ve already made with consolidation limits how much administrative savings are left to be found. Some costs may actually increase following consolidation. The Oklahoman reported that Cordell District saw its transportation costs increase by $16,500 after taking in students from Washita Heights. The story concluded:
School district consolidation can mean longer bus routes — leading to long, tiring days for schoolchildren and thousands of dollars in added fuel and insurance costs for districts.
With Oklahomans growing increasingly concerned about cuts to the classroom, it is understandable that legislators are looking for ways to eliminate inefficiencies through consolidation. While there is certainly potential for savings, policymakers should not overstate the impact. As we discussed previously, even if Oklahoma reduced district administration costs to that of the state with the least spending in that area, we would still rank 48th in per pupil spending going to the classroom, and we would have restored less than one-third of the overall funding that has been lost since 2008. A serious discussion of how we value and invest in education in this state won’t be able to count on any silver bullet for a solution.