Column: Beware What School Consolidation Means

Here are six lessons I learned about state-mandated school and school district consolidation from my experience as policy director of the Rural School and Community Trust, a national nonprofit that advocates for rural schools. The Vermont experience could be entirely different, of course. If it is, it will be a remarkable achievement.

Lesson 1: You don’t save money — but you change who gets it.

Consider West Virginia, the most aggressive school consolidator. According to an award-winning series of investigative reports by the Charleston Gazette:

∎  During the 1990s, West Virginia spent $1 billion to encourage consolidation.

∎ With a 13 percent enrollment decline (41,000 fewer students) over a 10-year period beginning in 1990, the state closed 300 schools but experienced a 16 percent increase in local administrators. Centralized bureaucracies do not shrink, they expand.

∎ Budgets devoted a higher percentage to maintenance and utilities than before.

∎ State officials acknowledge there has been no monetary savings.

∎ West Virginia today spends more of its education dollars on transportation than any other state.

Lesson 2: Consolidation is about closing schools, not districts.

Because consolidation is really about money, proponents usually focus on inefficient administration and on streamlining districts. But little money can be saved by closing districts because that’s not where the money is. The only real way to cut costs is to close schools, reduce the teaching force, and increase class size. Closing districts dismantles the political apparatus that protects schools. Thus, closing districts always ends up being but a prelude to closing schools.

Lesson 3: Consolidation is something the wealthy and powerful force on the less wealthy and less powerful.

In Maine, protests from larger and wealthier towns won them exemptions from the state’s consolidation law. Fifty-five percent of the students in the state were in districts that were ultimately exempt from reorganization. Those districts forced to consolidate are mostly Down East, in the far north of the state, or in the “rural rim” between the interstate corridor and the Northern Territories. The anger was so profound that the Legislature amended the law to allow towns to back out of their consolidated district.

In Arkansas, where consolidation was to be about districts, not schools, the 67 districts forced to close disproportionately served African American communities in the Mississippi Delta region, or poor white communities in the mountains. Within two years, 47 of the 134 schools operating in these districts were closed. Schools that were closed had 21 percent higher student poverty rates and served nearly three times the proportion of African-American students.

Lesson 4: Consolidation increases children’s time on buses and crimps participation.

In West Virginia, thousands of kids spend more than two hours on the bus each school day. Some are on the bus longer than they are in the classroom. Another result: less participation in co-curricular activities, both because of longer bus rides and because there are fewer opportunities per pupil in larger schools. Most alarming is the increase in dropout rates. Consolidation could harm Vermont’s graduation rate, which is No. 1 in the country.

Lesson 5: Bigger high schools offer more, but don’t accomplish more.

A Nebraska study found that larger high schools do offer more courses. However, participation in the curriculum is narrower, with some kids doing more but many others taking fewer classes across the curriculum. Study hall participation rates were highest in the largest high schools. In bigger schools, kids’ participation is not as needed or as valued. They can hide from challenging courses, and no one goes looking for them, especially if they are poor test takers. Low-income children in particular do better in smaller schools.

Lesson 6: Democracy matters and attempts to gloss over the loss of local control with community councils do not excite public participation.

If you think it is hard to get people to run for the school board, wait until you tell them that they can still have meetings but won’t have any power. A community council is not a bridge but a buffer between local citizens and centralized boards and administrations. They reduce public support for education.

State-mandated cooperation would be an alternative to forced consolidation. Cooperation among districts in some supervisory unions has proven effective in holding down costs. More administrative functions can be centralized if the districts delegate them to the supervisory union or are required to do so. Purchasing, transportation, building maintenance and repair, bookkeeping and finance, personnel, collective bargaining, data collection and management, special education, purchased professional and IT services, are possibilities.

With more support functions assigned to the supervisory union, the district boards could focus on teaching and learning. But the key to school success is that administrators closest to them — school principals — have the authority within the bounds of supervisory union-wide policies and goals to implement their decisions. If superintendents have too many meetings to go to, they have not delegated enough authority and responsibility to principals.

Instead of being an obstacle to excellence, perhaps supervisory unions are the reason why education is so successful in Vermont. Clumsy though they may appear, they have embraced genuine local and parental involvement and empowerment while providing a leading edge for the 21st century. Distancing the public from public schools does not improve schools or democratic involvement.

Marty Strange was policy director for the Rural School and Community Trust, a national nonprofit that advocates for rural schools, from 1997 to 2012, where he focused on state school funding and governance policies. He lives in Randolph.