Consolidating districts may not save schools money

In 1915, there were 2,674 school districts in Ohio.

Several rounds of consolidations, beginning in the 1930s when school buses became widespread and continuing up until the 1960s, has reduced that number to 614, according to a 2011 study by the Ohio School Boards Association. The peak of consolidations occurred in the 1950s when the state legislature offered incentives to small, usually rural districts to merge.

Some educators and lawmakers say consolidating school districts could help save costs and help transform education in the future. Others, including financial experts, say costs won’t be driven down dramatically and in some cases larger districts would be more costly.

The issue reared again in 2010 and became an issue in the gubernatorial campaign when the Brookings Institute, one of the nation’s most influential think tanks, issued a report “Restoring Prosperity: Transforming Ohio’s Communities for the Next Economy,” that called for a further reduction of the number of school districts to around 400.

The report called for no district to have fewer than 2,500 pupils, which would affect three Butler County School Districts: New Miami, the smallest district with fewer than 800 students; Monroe, with 2,232 students according to the most recent school report card; and Madison, with 1,568 students.

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Nationally, there are 12 states with initiatives or legislative mandates regarding mergers and consolidations, mostly with an eye toward reducing administrative costs, according to the OSBA report.

Maine, for instance, passed legislation in 2007 directing its 290 school districts to consolidate into 80 units. Voters rejected mergers in 180 districts, and many of those that did vote for merger are now putting it back on the ballot for repeal, according to a recent story in the Bangor Daily News.

The idea hasn’t been able to gain much traction in Ohio, despite the Brookings Institute Report. Subsequent studies, such as the OSBA report, an Ohio University/National Education Policy Center report “Consolidation of Schools and Districts: What the Research Says and What It Means,” and a Fordham Institute paper by John T. Wenders with the self-explanatory title “Consolidation is a Bad Idea,” have all concluded that not only would a consolidation movement not achieve the objectives of reducing administrative costs, but could also be harmful to student achievement.

The Ohio University report concluded, “In many places, schools and districts are already too large for fiscal efficiency or educational quality; deconsolidation is more likely than consolidation to achieve substantial efficiencies and yield improved outcomes.”

“Though proponents promise lower costs and stronger student performance, in practice neither seems to occur,” Wenders said. “Worse, over the long haul, consolidation sucks power away from parents, students, and local influence into more centralized political arrangements in which teacher unions and other special interests have even more clout. The result has been higher, not lower, per pupil costs and worse education.”

But for people in communities these smaller districts serve, there are other non-tangible benefits to being small.

“It’s about educating our children and giving them the best education we can, not throwing them into a larger district where they might be overlooked, whether they’re on the upper end or the lower end,” said Eleanor Carbary, who after a career teaching in New Miami schools has been on the board of education for 10 years. “We’re small enough that we can address those issues.

“The school is also a community center. We take a lot of pride in our school.”

Consequently, Ohio’s legislature and governor are encouraging a “shared services” approach, an alternative recommended by the Brookings report, as a less drastic alternative to consolidation, according to Ohio Senator Bill Coley of West Chester Twp., who serves on the Education Committee.

Earlier this year, Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s office issued “Beyond Boundaries: A Shared Services Action Plan for Ohio Schools and Governments,” which relies heavily on the findings of the Brookings Institute report but falls short of calling for consolidation.

Rather, it recommends not only that school districts find ways to share serves among themselves, but find partnerships with villages, townships and other government agencies to enter into simple agreements with one another to simplify the process of creating shared services opportunities.

A system for sharing services has long been in place as a result of the consolidation boom that started a century ago, when County Boards of Education were charged with reorganizing school districts. In 1995, these county boards were changed to “Educational Service Centers,” with a mission to provide large-scale support and special programs to local as well as city and exempted village school districts.

And the Butler County Educational Service Center has been responding to the challenge by working with the county’s school districts, through monthly meetings of superintendents and treasures, to explore ways to save money, according to Superintendent Jon Graft.

Much of the ESC’s efforts have been focused on early childhood education, but it also recently helped create an arrangement between Middletown and Monroe school districts to share a business manager.

For this school year, the BCESC created a speech pathology department that involves four districts and a system for hiring, training and coordinating substitute teachers in two counties.

The substitute teacher consortium will account for county-wide savings of about $1.5 million, Graft said, in a “very conservative” estimate.

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