School district consolidation is a topic that’s been discussed for decades in Delaware and it is easy to see why.
Delaware has 19 public school districts serving about 137,000 students. By contrast, a single school district in Maryland – Montgomery County Public Schools – serves more than 159,000 students.
Over the last 10 years, teachers and other educational employees have been a major driver of state personnel costs. Comparing Fiscal Year 2007 General Fund budget to our current spending plan, there are 652 fewer state agency workers, but 1,545 additional education employees.
However, consolidation is not the panacea it appears to be. Because teacher salaries and contracts vary widely from district to district, any consolidation would have to equalize compensation, largely eliminating any of the savings.
In fact, a 2002 feasibility study requested by state lawmakers found that consolidating downstate school districts into two county-wide districts would have increased annual operating costs by nearly 7.2-million dollars.
In 2007, the State of Maine attempted to consolidate 290 school districts into 80. That process was met with resistance and the law was scaled back and revised numerous times with the final result falling well short of the original objectives.
Even without consolidation, there are still potential opportunities in Delaware to reduce school district costs.
We need to explore having districts share non-instructional services. Transportation, facilities management, technology services, administration, and other functions could potentially be shared across districts. Reports performed in recent years in Oregon and New York have suggested this approach.
Also, collective purchasing by districts – maybe in conjunction with local governments – could save significant money by generating greater economies of scale
With the state facing a major budget shortfall, and public education accounting for more than a third of all state spending, looking for ways to improve the efficiency of school district operations is a task we just can’t afford to postpone any longer.