No great surprise here: A recent audit in New Jersey recommended that the state move forward with school district consolidation efforts. While New Jersey has already merged several school districts, it still has some 545 of them, more than many other states, even states with larger populations. What’s more, a remarkable 144 of New Jersey’s districts are made up of only one school.
State Auditor Stephen Eells points out the inefficiency of having one K-6 school handle all the administrative costs of running a school district. According to Eells, if that school were to join with a couple of other K-6s, a K-8 and maybe even a high school, the schools could eliminate duplicative administrative jobs, merge administrative tasks like payroll, and purchase commodities at lower rates thanks to the benefits of buying in bulk.
New Jersey’s auditor is hardly alone in his thinking. Throughout the country there was a great wave of school district consolidation in the 1970s and 1980s. Generally speaking, this consolidation consisted of bringing multiple small school districts together under a single set of administrators. Sometimes, but not always, individual schools were closed in the process. Although the trend slowed down over the years, there appear to be a growing number of states revisiting this managerial move — and with good reason.
The Education Debate We’re Not Having
The benefits of school consolidation go beyond fiscal savings. There are educational improvements. Four districts with one small high school apiece may not have the resources to provide, say, a dedicated music teacher. But if the four districts are unified, then it can quickly become affordable to hire one itinerant music teacher. Languages are another good example. Are there enough potential Latin students to offer that language in one school in one district? Maybe not. But over a broader terrain, Latin may become an affordable way to serve those students who want to translate e pluribus unum (for the non-Latin learners among us, that’s “out of many, one”).
This sounds appealing. But pulling together four or five school districts into one can be met with the same difficulty as assembling a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. In New Jersey, for example, a law was passed in 2007 that required executive county superintendents to submit consolidation plans for all K-12 districts by March 2010. The plans were submitted to the commissioner of education and that office identified 30 feasibility studies that needed to be done, potentially eliminating 104 districts. “But each report said there was no funding available to do the studies,” says Eells, so the process stalled.
Maybe there really wasn’t enough funding. But in New Jersey and other states, there are lots of reasons why school districts resist consolidation, notwithstanding the potential benefits. In Iowa, when district consolidation leads to the closing of schools, “there’s been a struggle,” says Jeff Berger, deputy director of the Iowa Department of Education, “with our rural communities wanting to keep the pulse of the town alive.”
Consider high school sports teams. In many parts of the country, the high school football team and its rivalry with the next town over are very much at the heart of the town’s sense of self. If that sounds silly to urban dwellers, then they’ve never gone to public school in a sports-crazy community where the highlight of the year is the homecoming game against the neighboring town.
There is also the issue of autonomy, which is seen as a potent pull toward maintaining the status quo. In areas where smaller districts are merged with larger ones, the smaller school districts are concerned that their level of representation in the superintendent’s office will almost certainly wane.
How legislatures craft bills about consolidation can play a huge role in the success of the effort. One state that didn’t do so well is Maine. In 2007, the legislature passed a law requiring small districts to regionalize under threat of penalty in those districts that did not comply.
“There was a lot of resistance, even immediately,” says Janet Fairman, associate research professor at the University of Maine. Moreover, efforts to ease the path toward regionalization included creating new jobs for occupants of duplicated positions. That meant that the fiscal benefits weren’t nearly as large as anticipated and couldn’t be translated into additional educational opportunities.
Maine’s law kept being amended every year. Exceptions and exemptions were made as schools argued that it was unreasonable for them to regionalize. Finally, in 2012, the state kept the law intact but removed the penalties. The result: A number of the school consolidations that had taken place are now shedding members who would rather be out on their own than part of one family.
Maine may have made some mistakes in basing compliance on the potential for punitive measures, rather than convincing people of the benefits. But at the end of the day, the problems were the same as those likely to be confronted in other states that try to consolidate schools. “What it came down to is control,” Fairman says. “Many really didn’t want to give that up.”