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What Really Happens When Districts Consolidate?

DeathtoStock_Creative_Community8.jpgConsolidations are frequently touted as a cost savings strategy due to economies of scale, which occurs when the cost of education, per student, declines as enrollment increases. Proponents argue that consolidating offers a cost advantage due to reduced personnel and operating expenses. Consider, for example, the costs of operating 2 separate districts with 4 campuses each. These districts might be able to reduce costs by eliminating a school and consolidating the two separate districts into one larger district. In the consolidated scenario, the new district has one superintendent (instead of 2) and only 7 schools to heat/cool and operate (instead of 8).

Districts don’t automatically become economies of scale just because they consolidate, however. Recent research suggests that projected costs promised as a result of consolidation “are seldom realized” and typically materialize only when small districts (< 300 students) reorganize. As an example, Duncombe and Yinger evaluated the fiscal impact of consolidations in New York over a 12 year period and found that consolidation reduced costs by up to 20% when two small 300-pupil districts merged. However, savings were less apparent when larger districts (> 1,500 students) merged, primarily because of capital costs associated with these consolidations.

So, what’s the optimal district size?
In all honesty, there’s no one-size fits-all approach. The authors of the New York study, referenced previously, suggest that a student body of 1,500 - 3,500 is the most cost effective when considering operational costs, but a student population of 1,000 is best when considering transportation costs. As a point of reference, research by the National Center for Education Statistics reported that there were approximately 88,000 public schools across 16,000 districts operating in the US in 2008. Thirty-two percent of districts enroll 250-999 students, 16% enroll 1,000-1,999 students, and 18% enroll 2,000-4,999.

What’s best for students?
So far we’ve been talking about cost effectiveness and consolidation. What about the impact of consolidation on students?

Few studies examine the direct impact of consolidation on student outcomes, and researchers bemoan the lack of empirical research that collects pre- and post-consolidation data for comparison. Case studies indicate that consolidation is harmful when students attend larger schools, have longer commutes (and, therefore, longer school days), and have few opportunities to engage in co- or extra-curricular activities due to increased competition. 

Consolidations impact student outcomes indirectly, as well, through their impact on the community’s landscape. For example, consolidation can impact housing prices, though this could be positive or negative. The most concerning situations involve small, rural communities, where consolidation results in the closure of a school that serves as the community’s “social and economic base.” In such communities, consolidations could have symbolic implications that erode trust and a sense of belonging.

Summary
District consolidations, like most things in life, come with advantages and disadvantages. Small districts will benefit the most financially, whereas larger districts will have minimal to negligible financial relief as a result of reorganization. Regarding student outcomes, students could benefit from more course offerings and specialized instruction after a consolidation, but such benefits aren’t guaranteed. Ultimately, the size of the district or school is less important to student outcomes, research shows, than the size of the classroom (hint: smaller is better).

Has your district gone through a consolidation? What have you learned through this experience?

 

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References
Duncombe, W., & Yinger, J. (2005, November). Does school district consolidation cut costs? Retrieved from Syracuse University, Center for Policy Research.
Duncombe, W., & Yinger, J. (2005, November). Does school district consolidation cut costs? Retrieved from Syracuse University, Center for Policy Research.
Howley, C., Johnson, J., & Petrie, J. (2011). Consolidation of schools and districts: What the research says and what it means. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved 2/14/2016 from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/consolidation-schools-distrcts.
National Conference and State Legislatures. (2011). School and district consolidation. Retrieved from http://www.ncsl.org/research/education/school-and-district-consolidation.aspx
Duncombe, W., & Yinger, J. (2005, November). Does school district consolidation cut costs? Retrieved from Syracuse University, Center for Policy Research.
Aritomi, P., & Coopersmith, J. (2009). Characteristics of Public School Districts in the United States: Results from the 2007-08 Schools and Staffing Survey (NCES 2009-320). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC.
Duncombe, W., & Yinger, J. (2005, November). Does school district consolidation cut costs? Retrieved from Syracuse University, Center for Policy Research.
Howley, C., Johnson, J., & Petrie, J. (2011). Consolidation of schools and districts: What the research says and what it means. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved 2/14/2016 from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/consolidation-schools-distrcts.
Hu, Y., & Yinger, J. (2008). The impact of school district consolidation on housing prices. National Tax Journal, 61(4), 609-633.
Howley, C., Johnson, J., & Petrie, J. (2011). Consolidation of schools and districts: What the research says and what it means. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved 2/14/2016 from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/consolidation-schools-distrcts.
Haimson, L. (2010, March 11). Does the size of a school matter? [Editorial]. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com

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