In praise of good ideas, starting with school district consolidation

You know, I sort of damned the good news about the growing DHEC consensus with unfairly faint praise earlier today. (Or darned it, at the very least.)

I need to start looking more at the bright side. I don't spend enough time looking at things that way these days. We're all so overwhelmed by the economic situation — and if you are in the newspaper business, you are steeped in it (nothing is more sensitive to a slowing economy than an already-troubled industry that is built on advertising revenues). It's very easy to dwell on such facts as this one that has stuck in my head since last week: That not only did the U.S. economy lose 2.5 million jobs in 2008, the worst since 1945, but 524,000 of those jobs lost were in December alone. To do the math for you, if the whole year had been as bad as the last month, the total would have been over 6.29 million. And there's no particular reason to think January won't be worse than December.

I'm not a big Paul Krugman fan, but stats like that make me worry that he was right in his column, which we ran on Sunday, saying that the Barack Obama stimulus plan, overwhelming huge as it is, won't be nearly big enough.

And these are not cheery thoughts. Nor is it cheery to reflect, as I did in my Sunday column, about how resistant policy makers in South Carolina are to policies that make sense — even the more obvious policies, such as increasing the cigarette tax to the national average, or restructuring government to increase accountability, or comprehensive tax reform.

That's what we do in this business. We harp. Year in, year out. We can be tiresome. We can, as I suggested Sunday, get tired of it ourselves. But little victories such as this emerging consensus on DHEC, or the signs that we saw last year that even some of the stauncher opponents of restructuring in the Black Caucus are coming around on the issue (which is a real sea change) are worth celebrating, and encouraging — like putting extra oxygen on an ember.

So it is that I applaud Cindi today for, instead of doing her usual thing of mocking the stupider ideas among the prefiled bills, giving a boost to the better ideas. There were some good ones on her list.

In fact, I was inspired to do a little followup on one of them:

H.3102 by Reps. Ted Pitts and Joan Brady would shut off state funds to
school districts with fewer than 10,000 students, in an attempt to make
inefficient little districts merge.

Now that's the beginning of a good idea. Like most obviously good ideas, it isn't new. We've been pushing for school district consolidation as long as we've been pushing restructuring and comprehensive tax reform, etc., and with even less success. Everybody says they're for it in the abstract; no one lifts a finger to make it happen. Even Mark Sanford gives lip service to it (but won't work to make it happen, preferring to waste his energy on ideological dead-ends such as vouchers).

So it's encouraging that Ted Pitts and Joan Brady (and Bill Wylie and Dan Hamilton) want to at least set a starting place — a numerical threshold, a line that the state can draw and say, "We won't waste precious resources paying to run districts smaller than this."

Mind you, I'm not sure it's the RIGHT threshold. I've always thought that the most logical goal should get us down from the 85 districts we have now to about one per county — which would be 46. The 10,000 student threshold overshoots that goal, as I discovered today. I asked Jim Foster over at the state department of ed to give me a list of the sizes of districts. The latest list that he had handy that had districts ranked was this spreadsheet
(see the "TABLE 1-N" tab), which showed that as of 2006, only 18 districts in the state had more than 10,000 pupils. One of those — Kershaw County — has since risen over the magic mark, so that makes it 19.

Maybe we should have only 19 districts in the state, although I worry that a district that had to aggregate multiple counties to be big enough might be a little unwieldy.

But hey, it's a starting point for discussion on an actual reform that would help us eliminate ACTUAL waste in our education system, and provide more professional direction to some of our most troubled schools (which tend to be in those rural districts that just aren't big enough to BE districts to start with).

So way to go, Ted and Joan (and Bill and Dan).

I was particularly struck that Ted was willing to put forth an idea that would have an impact in his own county (although perhaps not, I suspected, in his actual district). That's the standard reason why district consolidation gets nowhere — lawmakers balk at messing with their home folks districts, because voters tend to be about this the way they are about other things; a reform is great until if affects them.

I suspected, and Jim's spreadsheet confirmed, that while Lexington 1 and District 5 were big enough to retain state funding under this proposal, Lexington 3 and 4 were not. More than that, Lexington 2 falls below the threshold, and at least part of Ted's district is in Lexington 2. (Unless I'm very mistaken. Ted is MY House member, and my children all attended Lexington 2 schools.) As for Joan Brady — I think her district would be unaffected, as Richland 1 and 2 would be untouched (even though they shouldn't be — they should be merged). But I still applaud her involvement.

Anyway, way to get the ball rolling on this, folks. Let's keep talking about this one.

22 thoughts on “In praise of good ideas, starting with school district consolidation

  1. Brad Warthen

    By the way, for those of you intimidated by spreadsheets, here are the 19 districts that exceed the 10,000 threshold, as of the figures I have, from biggest to smallest:
    Richland 1
    Richland 2
    Lexington 1
    Dorchester 2
    York 3
    Lexington 5
    Florence 1
    Anderson 5
    The rest all fall below.

  2. Lee Muller

    SPIN: The U.S. economy lost 2.5 million jobs in 2008, the worst since 1945.
    CONTEXT: In 1945, there were 38,000,000 workers.
    In 2008, there were 138,000,000 workers.
    REALITY: In percentage terms, this is the worst unemployment since 1998, under Bill Clinton.
    Bank loans in December 2008 were greater than any other month in 2008, so the banks are still lending money.
    Most of the financial crisis is centered around the mortgage corruption of FNMA and FMAC by Democrats. That brought down Bear Stearns and the mortgage insurers.
    In an effort to help Obama win, the media talked up hysteria about the economy after military victories in Iraq took that former number one issue off the table.
    The TARP bailouts and the stock taken over by the federal government is frightening private investors out of bank stocks. This created the next wave of economic problems, the fall in stock prices in September.
    As more people learned of the Democrats’ desire to confiscate their retirement accounts, $4 TRILLION was pulled out of the market within 45 days.

  3. murraywood

    It would be interesting to see the budgets of Lexington/Richland school districts, just as a hoot. I was dumbfounded after moving here to learn that there are 5 separate school districts in Lexington County alone ( and one ‘shared’ with a neighboring County?) Talk about overhead ! What incredible expense to keep all those administrators paid and district offices running.

  4. Rich

    Consolidate the districts as much as possible. There is simply no excuse for seven Spartanburgs, three Marions, three Clarendons, and the Sumter monstrosity of one district surrounded by another. B-L and Saluda should be one district. Districts do not have to correspond to county, but they should correspond to preponderant populations.
    Richland One and Two should always remain separate because of their sheer size. But Lexington is in need of consolidation as is Anderson, Barnwell, and Orangeburg once again.
    We’d save beaucoup bucks on administration. In this state, school administration could be significantly consolidated, thereby saving money to pay for more teachers and classroom resources.

  5. Randy E

    Consolidating districts will save how much money? I see this as another example of critics demagoguing with a superficial understanding of the problem.
    For arguments sake, let’s combine Lex 1 (Lex HS) and Lex 2 (BC HS). The number of teachers and site based administration remains unchanged. The district office services are combined thereby eliminating a superintendent, HR director etc. BUT, you need about the same staff size because the workload is changed only a little, e.g. you have about the same number of employees so the HR staff size is about the same.
    Granted, less upper management reduces the number of higher salaries, but the vast majority of salaries will remain unchanged. For example, Richland Two’s annual budget is around $200 mil. More than 90% of this is for salaries, benefits, utilities, and property contracts. A handful of district office cuts will hardly be a windfall savings for a district.
    Unless someone can show hard numbers, this is a big fat red herring stinking up the joint.

  6. Doug Ross

    While I tend to agree with you that the savings would not be huge, I think they could be more than you estimate.
    For Richland County alone, I would bet the savings would be several million dollars a year.
    The problem is that public schools are not run like a real business. Incompetent employees are not fired (do you recall anyone ever being let go who had not committed a crime?) There are plenty of people who do very little every day to justify their salaries. Think back to your days at Ridge View – do you recall anyone who worked there who fell into that category?
    There are no performance goals to meet, little real oversight, and plenty of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” arrangements throughout the system.
    A better solution than simply consolidating districts would be to move most of the overhead functions for all districts to the state level. Why should invididual school districts have different policies/staffs for HR, Purchasing, Payroll, etc.?

  7. Harry Harris

    While the 10,000 target is too arbitrary, a consolidation should and will take place. The savings in duplicative central administration will be large enough to be of note, and the efficiencies of unification will far exceed the collaboration among districts that now exists. Smaller districts struggle to offer students the opportunities that are available in larger districts, including coursework, school choice, and extracurricular experiences. Very large districts suffer from a necessitated beaurocracy that makes them less nimble than is optimal. The consolidation should be planned, orderly, and phased-in, and should likely start with the smallest districts.

  8. Doug Ross

    Following on to something I wrote:
    “For Richland County alone, I would bet the savings would be several million dollars a year.”
    I believe the recently passed bond referendum included $18 million for a new administration building. Think of the cost savings that could be gained in Richland County alone by having a single administration building for both R1 and R2.
    And even as a vehement anti-tax person, I would have no problem with keeping the spending at the same level as long as the savings went directly to classroom teachers and principals (hopefully in the form of merit pay).

  9. some guy

    I think Harry Harris has it about right.
    The notion that consolidation is going to be a cure for wasteful spending or anything else is a bit chancey. Some consolidation probably makes sense in various counties, but a one-district-per-county set-up would be a big mistake, in my opinion. The really large districts can have bureaucracies that are extremely inefficient and cumbersome and, worst of all, unresponsive.
    Moreover — and I think most importantly — the larger districts can have a hard time creating or taking advantage of a sense of community and local pride, as well as responsiveness on the part of administrators and representatives. For example, Spartanburg County may have too many school districts, but people feel like they know their school board members — they live right down the street, etc. — and they are more likely to feel that they can call on their superintendents, I figure. They also know that tax dollars for things like building programs are going to stay IN THE COMMUNITY and not be sent way over to the other end of the county. For all these reasons, folks are more likely to support their local schools, in my opinion, and it might be worth paying extra for. And I think you see that in Spartanburg County, in fact.
    So while some school systems could be merged or reorganized in this state, I think we should very carefully weigh the advantages and disadvantages or various levels of consolidation.

  10. wall fly

    Randy, here are your hard numbers. In my less-than-10,000-students district, about 8 percent of our $15 million budget is spent on district-office administration. At least two neighboring districts mirror our situation, though ours is a whole-county district and theirs are not. Were one district made of those three, administrative costs would shrink by one-half to two-thirds, depending on the extent to which duplication would be eliminated.
    That would mean a savings of $1.5 million to $2 million on administration in three existing districts. If all 66 non-10,000 districts could do the same, that would be a savings of $30 million to $40 million statewide on administrative salaries, plus what might be realized on building maintenance.
    And actually, because my district is one of the smaller districts, complete “10,000” consolidation would probably save more than that. More than $10 per every man, woman and child in the state per annum.
    But, of course, you’ll always get the attitude Rich showed here — well, sure, they need to consolidate, and those districts over there, too, and, ooh-ooh-ee, do looky, that district that makes a ring around the other –how wasteful — but us? We saints in Richland County? US? Nah, we don’t need to consolidate. We’re special.

  11. Doug Ross

    School district consolidation is one of those topics that should be placed on a ballot for the voters to decide.
    At a minimum, it would force those who oppose the idea to demonstrate the value that the current structure provides.

  12. Randy E

    wall fly suggests that district office costs would drop by up to 2/3. For arguments sake let’s use his (her) $30 million figure. The state budget general funds is a little less than $7B. About half goes to k-12. The massive undertaking in consolidating districts would result in maybe a 1% savings. My point is I think time, energy, and political capital is better spent in reform that has wider ranging effects.
    Similarly, the whole voucher discussion simply drains energy from initiating real reform. Doug is absolutely right about accountability. If bureaucrats were held accountable for spending, I bet we’d save more than 1%. Apply this to accountability for educators and you’d see results as well. Vouchers and blind allegiance to Adam Smith is not going to provide this accountability nor sweeping reform.
    We may see a republican, other than Huckabee, address poverty as a national or state issue before we see a focus on education reform that doesn’t include the term vouchers. In other words, it ain’t gonna happen, cap’n.

  13. Randy E

    Education in the Columbia area took a turn for the worse this weeek. A long time Richland 2 math teacher passed away today.
    Mr. David Oberly taught at SV and RV for over 20 years and was a master at his craft. He loved teaching, he loved teenagers, and he contributed to the lives of many of us.

  14. wall fly

    I show $30 million to $40 million in annual savings, enough to hire 1,000 teachers — a dozen per district — and a teacher tells me that’s not worth the time to pursue.
    This is why teachers usually don’t make good school board members. They believe money grows on someone else’s tree.

  15. Randy E

    wall fly, your flippant and skewed reply undermines your position. It also reinforces the point I was making about how the consolidation debate distracts us from meaningful reform.
    My point about the need for bureaucrats to be good stewards of public funds hardly reflects a mindset of “money growing on trees.”
    I did not write that it was a worthless endeavor, but that it was inefficient relative to other possible approaches. There has been and will be tremendous resistance to the consolidation. As we spin our wheels in this mud, efficient reform is sidelined.
    Besides, your numbers are faulty. Combining two district offices would not result in 2/3 savings. I addressed this in my first post. While some leadership positions are obsolete, the total staff is not simply cut in half because the number of district offices is halfed. For example, the number of site based educators, custodians, cafeteria workers, secretaries etc. remains unchanged. If a company maintains roughly the same number of employees, the HR staff is not going to change significantly.
    Teachers usually don’t make good school board members? This teacher proposed fiscal accountability that can be implemented relatively quickly and easily. You propose reform that will take tremendous time and energy to enact, if it would at all. I bet most constituents would prefer the former.

  16. wall fly

    I said combining THREE district offices into one, not two, would create a 2/3 savings, sir. You’re a teacher. Learn to COMPREHEND what you pretend to read. There was nothing “flippant,” nor “skewed,” about my point. I deliberately UNDERESTIMATED the savings. Your one percent estimate using my figures is ridiculously low, and I really was talking about district-office personnel ONLY.
    My comment about teachers serving on school boards comes from experience. Thanks for proving my point. You’re another educator whose goal is to see how much money you can get thrown at schools while you preach fiscal responsibility vaguely. That exercise robs us all, even the children.

  17. Harry harris

    A discussion of school district consolidation need not devolve into an exchange containing insulting language, name-calling, and unfounded assumtions about posters. As with most difficult problems, the best solutions are not held by a majority of the population or even the most vocal majority. The best solutions are made through deliberation among those with the most expertise and experience and are reviewed by smart, disinterested third parties. A ballot provision would be an interesting exercize, but not a path to a good solution. A good scientific poll would yield better information. There is a strong-sounding economic argument for consolidation – with glaring errors and lacking information. There is a strong-sounding “personal-touch/local control” argument against it which ignores the issue of the need for high-level talent and independence in administrative leadership and board composition. Unfortunately, we (as a society) tend to choose sides early on when dealing whth hard stuff, and we consider our positions more important than good solutions – or (in this case) more precious than our children.

  18. Randy E

    Harry, there was no exchange of acrimony. That was one sided.
    wall fly, you again highlight my points. The frustration and emotion you exhibit would be shared by many in the debate. This makes such reform highly ineffective.
    Regarding the fact that you cited 3 in lieu of 2 districts is moot. There would likely be other instances that would involve two. Also, combining three cenral offices into one still leaves site based personnel unchanged hence HR staff would not shrink by 2/3 as you suggest.
    Compose all the insults you want about teachers, it hardly bolsters your point.
    As for my “vague” details regarding accountability, I was suggesting a strategy only. There are numerous specifics I could recommend. For example, a focused effort to cut off lights in vacant rooms in district buildings. Another is to control copier paper usage. Both would be relatively easy to implement with an aggregate savings that could become significant when bundled with other similar initiatives.
    While the consolidation debate rages for years, cost cutting accountability could start now. That hardly reflects a teacher who is reckless with public funds.

  19. wall fly

    Sure, Randy. One superintendent instead of two or three wouldn’t save any money. One finance officer instead of two or three wouldn’t save any money. One personnel officer instead of two or three wouldn’t save any money. One district-office building instead of two or three wouldn’t save any money. You’re right. Saving money on copier paper, and maybe even toner, is the way to go. We could even have students in adjacent desks share pencils.
    To repeat what I said previously: I’m not talking about ANY site-based personnel. I’m talking about people IN the district office.
    Goodness, man, administrative salaries and benefits dwarf copier-paper waste.
    In my district, anyway.

  20. Randy E

    Wall fly, there is a relationship between the staffing needs of the central office and staffing levels at schools. I cite site based personnel because of this.
    The staff in the HR department in the central office is responsible for HR needs for the site based personnel. If the number of site based employees doesn’t change when districts are combined, then the number of HR people IN THE CENTRAL OFFICE remains roughly the same.
    Regarding cost cutting, I specifically wrote that copier costs and electrical bills were merely examples and would have to be bundled with other similar measures to have an impact. I am confused as to why you are opposed to efficient use of public funds.
    It appears that you have determined that consolidation is THE way to deal with the budget issue. Your $30M savings covers 7% of the shortfall. So the long drawn out battle you have in mind will still leave the state $400M short.

  21. wall fly

    You put words in my mouth. I never said district-office consolidation is THE way to deal with the budget issue. Stopping the ever-spreading school-construction boondoggle is the answer there, but you would be just as opposed to that, so I have already wasted my time by bringing it up.
    I must commend you, however, for doing a good job of illustrating just how entrenched those who would battle against district consolidation are. Time after time you misstated my position, and you never backed down, all in defense of the status quo.
    Thanks for your time. You’ve given me a good idea why we’re paying so much for public education and why so many people feel like we’re not getting our money’s worth.


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