The Pros and Cons of District Consolidation

This post was originally published here.

Every year we hear talk about school district consolidation, but it’s a complicated topic, so we want to try to answer some common questions. As with most everything, there are both pros and cons.

Q.   What’s the difference between school district consolidation and school district unification?
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Consolidation is a general term used to convey the idea of bringing school districts together. It usually refers to efforts to merge neighboring districts.

When people talk about school district unification, they’re usually referring to efforts to merge elementary/middle and high school districts that already have closely aligned borders. This consolidation would create one larger “unified” district that covers students from kindergarten through high school.

 

Q.   What are some of the biggest benefits of consolidation/unification?
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Depending on the districts, consolidation could result in saved money, through more efficient use of resources and increased buying power.

These major overhauls can also disrupt the cultures in participating districts, which can be a good thing when the existing cultures aren’t contributing to student success.

 

Q.   What are some of the biggest drawbacks?
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There are a number of potential drawbacks to consolidation, depending on the situation. School districts can, in fact, be too big. As the student body grows too large, administrative costs grow to accommodate the number of school sites, principals, etc.

What’s more, larger districts aren’t as nimble in adjusting to new technologies and learning modalities. For instance, a district that aims to provide each student with a laptop will have an easier time with a small student population.

 

Q.   What sort of situations make the most sense for consolidation?
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Consolidation isn’t always the answer, but there are scenarios where it might be helpful. Potentially for districts that face declining enrollment, as consolidation could offer ways to use resources more efficiently. Also, regions with smaller K-8 districts that already resemble the high school district’s boundaries could benefit from unification.

 

Q.   When is consolidation not advisable?
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Districts that already have tens of thousands students are unlikely to see any monetary benefits from consolidation. While they might be able to wield purchasing power to decrease the cost of supplies, the additional administration needs in a district of that size will likely outweigh any other financial benefits.

 

Q.   What are some considerations that most people might not think about?
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School district finances are perhaps the most complicated issue related to consolidation planning. For instance, when you merge the two organizations, what happens to the debt coming from one or both? Are voters in the new district boundaries responsible for bonds that have been previously passed by other voters? If one district has passed a budget override, who will cover the cost?

Beyond that, pay for teachers – and other staff – can vary widely between school districts. The biggest disparities typically come between elementary and high school districts, since high school teachers are typically paid at higher rates. If one district has higher pay, do you decrease those teacher salaries to correspond with the other district? Or vice versa? Would the budget even support raising the salaries of the lower district’s teachers to bring them up to the higher district?

Accountability could also become an issue. Each school district is run by a locally elected school board. These board members oversee everything from superintendent hiring to setting curriculum and overseeing the budget. As two or more districts combine, what happens to their corresponding board members? As the district gets larger, do you create larger boards to accommodate the increased number of students and schools? Board members might go from overseeing a districts with 4,000 students to 20,000. How would that change impact their effectiveness and responsiveness?

 

Q. What are some cost-saving alternatives to consolidation?
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There are a number of small or rural school districts that already work together to reduce costs. For instance, Yavapai County districts have collectively hired a substitute teacher service, which bring substantial cost savings.

Neighboring districts in Globe and Miami have also collaborated to ensure that students have access to sports – where one district didn’t offer tennis or track, students are able to join the neighboring district’s team.

Districts also partner on issues such as administrative services, transportation and professional development, enabling them to pool resources and spend more efficiently.

 

Q.   How does geography and location impact consolidation?
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Arizona is a unique blend of rural, urban and everything in between. While it might seem simple to look at district boundaries on a map and suggest merging one or more, reality isn’t always that simple. Districts might be separated by a mountain range or not have passable roads linking the two.

 

Q.   What do Arizona’s school districts look like now?
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In Arizona today, there are 641 school districts (207 traditional and 434 charter), serving more than a million students in preschool through high school.

Some of the largest school districts are educating between 30,000 and 60,000 students. These districts are concentrated in urban areas. Smaller districts may serve a few thousand and can be found in urban and rural regions of the state.

 

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