Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Superintendent Luna Helps Answer Questions on Consolidation

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna presented to the Senate Education Committee last week on the feasibility of consolidating school districts within Idaho.

Consolidation has been a hot topic across the state for years; now more than ever. As budgets grow tighter and state revenues decline, many people believe it will save the state millions of dollars if school districts consolidated.

However, consolidation remains a controversial topic, especially in small, rural communities.

“They fear consolidation, and rightfully so, because they believe it will mean their local school board will be dissolved, their school will close, and their children will be bussed over the mountain to the next district,” Superintendent Luna said. “Obviously, we cannot allow this to happen.

“Let me be clear about my position on consolidation: I am not a proponent of forced consolidation,” Superintendent Luna said. “As a former school board trustee and now as State Superintendent, I believe in local control. As a state, we must give districts the tools they need – and the incentives – to consolidate if it will find efficiencies and be beneficial to the students within those districts.”

Currently, local school boards have the authority to consolidate with another district if both districts agree to it. In fact, the Legislature has put certain measures in place to encourage districts to consolidate, or at least look at consolidation.

Idaho Code 33-1003 allows districts to keep the full cost savings of consolidation for seven years. After seven years, districts can keep half of the costs savings. Previous to this law, those savings would have all reverted to the state. Idaho Code 33-310 allows districts to be reimbursed up to $10,000 for the cost of studying the feasibility of consolidation.

Still, many Idahoans have asked why the state doesn’t step in and require districts to consolidate. To help answer these questions, Superintendent Luna presented to the Senate Education Committee on the history of district consolidation in Idaho, his position on consolidation, how Idaho compares to other states, and what it actually might save the state.

[The full PowerPoint presentation is available online.]

District consolidation is not a new concept in the State of Idaho. 

According to an Idaho Historical Society report, the state had approximately 1,082 school districts in 1940 when C.E. Roberts became State Superintendent. Roberts recommended reorganizing districts, but his recommendations were largely ignored. But Roberts did not give up. He went on to lead an organization called the Idaho Education Council in 1944, which continued to push the issue of consolidation. In 1947, the Legislature took action, requiring the State Department of Education to consolidate districts.

The Department faced a difficult task. Asher B. Wilson, chairman of the State Board of Education, took it upon himself to reorganize districts. It took until 1961. By the end of 1947, 11 districts had been reorganized. By September 1950, the 1,082 districts had been reduced to 301. After 12 years, the program was finally considered complete, and the 1,082 school districts had been consolidated into 116.

[The full Idaho Historical Society report is available online.]

Today, the state has 115 school districts in operation.

So, how much does the state currently spend on administrative costs among its districts?

Idaho’s per-pupil spending on general administration costs is higher than other western states, according to data from the U.S. Census. This measure does not include the cost of school administration. General administration can be thought of as the cost of district administration.

Six of the 10 western states spend less than Idaho. We rank as having the fourth-highest expenditures per pupil, just behind Nevada, at $145 per pupil.

However, if you consider the per-pupil cost of administration at the school administrative level, then Idaho ranks considerably better in comparison to other western states. Only two states – Arizona and Utah, spend less.

The State Department of Education ran estimates on what the state would save if local school districts consolidated, based on Idaho’s 44 county lines. The savings would equal about $15 million.

Superintendent Luna reiterated he does not support forced consolidation. Instead, he supports the Legislature continuing to encourage districts to work together to consolidate services, such as payroll departments, special education services, human resources, technology and other services.

For more information, please see the full presentation available online.

~ Melissa M.

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