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Cost and benefits of school consolidation

August 29, 2011

Though, in the past years, school district consolidation has seemed a panacea to growing administrative costs, in many cases, consolidation appears to save less money than expected.  In some cases, it ends up costing districts and stakeholders more than before consolidation.

According to The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at The University of Colorado in Boulder, “Arguments for consolidation which merges schools or districts and centralizes their management rest primarily on two presumed benefits: (1.) fiscal efficiency and (2.) higher education quality.” NEPC goes on to say: “Because economic crises often provoke calls for consolidation as a means of increasing governing efficiency, the contemporary interest in consolidation is not surprising.”

In laying the groundwork for thoughts of possible school district consolidation in Idaho, Education Week reports “The Oregon-based Education Northwest, an education research laboratory, says consolidation of Idaho Falls School District 91 and Bonneville Joint School District 93 would have upfront costs of up to $2.4 Million while generating between $582,000 and $2.4 million, while generating between $582,000 and $2.4 million in additional annual costs.”

In many cases the largest cost in consolidation lies in transportation: not only regular bus routes but also all additional extra-curricular programs in a school district. Maintenance and grounds for larger areas as well as school security are also added costs in addition to many others. Many parents also have to travel longer distances to schools that absorbed consolidated students and after building closings during the consolidation process

Some educational consulting organizations conduct studies prior to consolidation requests. In addition, the department of public education in each state has policies and procedures regarding the request for implementation of the consolidation of public school districts. Because this issue is often controversial, it would be wise to bear in mind some further findings from The NEPC:

“The review of research evidence detailed (…) suggests that a century of consolidation has already produced most of the benefits obtainable. Moreover, contemporary research does not support claims about the wide spread benefits of consolidation. Research also suggests that impoverished regions in particular often benefit from smaller schools and districts, and they can suffer irreversible damage if consolidation occurs.”

NEPC also points out that “… decisions to consolidate or de-consolidate are best made on case by case basis. Avoid state-wide mandates for consolidation and steer clear of minimum sizes for schools and districts. These always prove arbitrary and often unworkable. Consider other measures to improve fiscal efficiency or educational services.”

There are many alternatives to district consolidation in efforts to save money.  Many school districts share cooperative agreements for staff development, alternative education programs, special education services, athletics facility usage, and in some cases even contract out transportation through larger shared contracts to cut costs.

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