The School District Consolidation Myth

As part of his budget, Governor Rendell proposed creating a commission on consolidating PA school districts (and it turns out, he may intend to do so even if the legislature does not agree to a plan).  What Rendell seems to have forgotten – but the Allentown Morning Call has remembered –  is that the legislature commissioned a study on that issue a mere two years ago.  That report concluded that there were only 88 districts ripe for consolidation, into 34 districts, a reduction of 54 districts – a far cry from Governor Rendell’s dream of consolidating 500 districts into 100.

What the Morning Call does not mention is the reason the report focuses on districts with an enrollment below 3,000: because districts above that size spent much more per pupil.  Thus, consolidating districts into larger districts would reduce efficiency and increase costs to taxpayers.  We reached the same conclusion in our cursory look at school spending.

Fred Baldwin also took on this myth on SchoolBoardTransparency, writing;

But the notion that creating larger administrative units will significantly reduce the actual number of administrators runs counter to experience.  It won’t help that some superintendents becomes “assistant superintendents” if everybody involved expects raises.

Rhone addresses the single largest school cost item (about half of every district  budget) in one sentence:  “Teacher compensation and benefits would be standardized over the county.”  That sentence undercuts his main thesis.  Does anyone believe that salaries will be “standardized” at any level lower than the highest then prevailing in the county?

Suppose, for the sake of the argument, that hoped-for administrative cost savings materialize — say, at 20% of current cost levels.  (Higher savings are easy to imagine and describe in detail, but so are unicorns.)  That would be 20% of about 10% of most budgets – or 2% of a district’s total budget.  Good, but I’d guess that “standardization” would also boost average instructional staff salaries and benefits by at least 5%.

As a stand-alone change, school district consolidation is unlikely to save taxpayers.