Consolidation may not be effective cure

Consolidation may not be effective cure By the Plain Talk Our recent, successful opt-out election to provide extra property tax revenue to the Vermillion School District has prompted a lot of deep thinking in the community.

Many people shared their thoughts on our editorial page by writing letters to the editor.

We�ve received a fair share of other correspondence, too, from people who took the time to �privately� think out loud with us.

Their ideas are varied, but nearly all of them have a similar goal � to cut the rate that schools, and in particular, the Vermillion School District, spends money.

Suggestions range from closing one or both of the elementary schools, moving those students to the middle school, and moving middle school students to the high school (the reasoning here is that declining enrollment means we don�t need as many buildings � and administrators to run them) to turning to private contributions, in the form of a foundation, perhaps, to help the district get by during tough financial times.

A cost-savings measure that seems to make sense is consolidation of school districts. There really hasn�t been that much consolidation in recent years.

The 2003-2004 school year started with 172 public school districts � two fewer than the 2002-2003 year. The new consolidations are:

? Alpena dissolved and attached its land areas to Huron, Wolsey, Wessington Springs and Woonsocket;

? Lake Hendricks dissolved and attached to Deubrook Area School District;

? Sisseton and Veblen consolidated into Sisseton Public School 54-2.

The total was boosted by one when Lennox School District split into the Tea Area District and Lennox District.

In addition, four public school districts are sharing two superintendents or CEOs in starting in 2003-04. They are Irene and Wakonda school districts, both headed by Superintendent Larry Johnke, and Carthage and Iroquois school districts, sharing CEO Lori Wehlander.

State aid to education is distributed to public schools based on the number of students enrolled throughout the school year.

Enrollment in grades K-12 across the state has been declining steadily, from 131,117 students in fiscal year 1999, to 123,058 in fiscal year 2004.

That�s a lot of kids. Surely, there�s some room for additional consolidation. Surely, the state could benefit from the economies of scale brought by fewer, larger school districts.

With more students and the same or lower costs, the total cost per student should come down. Some analysts and many consolidation proponents accept as an article of faith that larger schools and larger districts have lower costs per pupil than smaller ones.

In 1984, Richard Valencia reviewed 40 studies on the impact of school closures on costs and other factors. He concluded that �closing schools reduces per-pupil costs very little, if at all.��

One of the leading studies Valencia reviewed examined school closures in 49 districts nationwide. Of the 49 districts, 35 had projected cost savings in support of the proposed closures.�The projections were compared with the actual changes in cost after the closures.�

Of the 35, only 12 had actually calculated the changes in cost after the closures. Of the 12, only four were able to report actual savings, six concluded the closures had no cost impacts, and two reported actual cost increases.�

So, there may be a good reason that South Dakota school districts don�t seem particularly eager to consolidate right now.

Researchers J.P. Sher and R.B. Tompkins note that consolidation may, in some cases, reduce administrative costs. But at the same time, consolidated districts are likely to experience these budget-busters:

? The moving of personnel from salary schedules of smaller schools and districts to higher salary schedules of larger schools and districts.�

? Increasing bargaining power of teachers.

? More specialized staff.

? Higher costs of having to transport more kids longer distances.

? Lower support for bond levies.

? Need for new and larger facilities.

Turns out consolidation may not be the panacea we all thought it would be.

The Vermillion Plain Talk editorials reflect the opinion of Plain Talk editor David Lias. You may contact him at david.lias@plaintalk.net

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