A new State Legislature has just been elected. But will they have the guts to tackle the biggest educational and economic challenge facing Kansas: school consolidation? With both a growing shortage of rural teachers and a State economic crisis (63 percent of our state taxes go to education), the dreaded “C”-word may have to be spoken.
In 1945, Kansas had 8,000 little school districts. By 1960, this dropped to 2,600. In 1963, the Kansas legislature set up our unified school district system that gave us 303 USDs. Then earlier this decade, a plan was proposed for just 40 Kansas Regional School Districts. It was rapidly dismissed.
I visit both large city schools and small rural schools in Kansas. Rural schools are a comfortable place for students to grow up. Classes are small and everyone knows everyone. Each student is a big fish in a small pond and in sports, most get to play. Often one English teacher teaches you English from freshman to senior level. And one Mr. or Mrs. Science teaches middle school science through biology and chemistry and senior physics. Most small-high-school teachers have from four to six different preparations and that means that there is usually less science equipment. Some teachers are teaching some topics at “arm’s length” if not out-of-field. Personal attention is high. But small class size makes “efficiency” low. Rural schools need more state aid per pupil.
Politically, small communities center around their school. It is often their identity. When a school is lost, it can result in a ghost town.
In contrast, teachers in larger high schools have only one or two different “preps” a day. Class sizes are closer to 24 or more. Larger schools offer a wider array of advanced courses. Local option budgets often supplement the budget and there can be substantially better facilities.
With rural schools unable to replace retiring teachers in more-and-more fields, and with state tax revenues likely to fall for a substantial time, consolidation may now have legitimacy.
The proposed “regional district model” is based on businesses. It looks at McDonalds restaurants and WalMart stores where a 60 mile radius in the west or a 3 minute travel rule in the east determines the minimal population necessary to support a store. An administrator could say, “if we have a McDonalds, we can keep our school.” RSDs also resemble the Kansas Rural Health Network where smaller unspecialized community hospitals are hubbed around a few large specialized hospitals. The RFD model would transport young students to local elementaries and have secondary students then continue to ride the bus on to a few centralized high schools.
Several of the 40 proposed regional districts were examined in detail to estimate how much change might occur. A South Central Regional District around Pratt could consolidate 17 current districts into one and 36 schools into 30, a net loss of six schools although there is some reconfiguring of the schools involved. A Manhattan Regional District could consolidate 9 districts into one and 45 schools into 30, a loss of 15 schools. And a Southwest Regional District consolidates 17 districts into one and 36 schools into 30, a net loss of six schools. This last case preserves one “necessary small school.” If the travel distance is over one hour on the bus, the small local school is not automatically closed. The RSD plan uses optimum sizes; while some rural schools are too small, some current schools in Salina and Manhattan are considered too large.
Those models are theoretical. The actual regional districts would have their own elected school boards and determine the consolidation best for their area.
Consolidation would address a small portion of the teacher shortage. If one small school has a qualified teacher teaching a class of ten students and a second small school has an out-of-field teacher doing the same, a consolidated school could teach the twenty students with the one qualified teacher.
Savings per regional district could come by eliminating all those small school boards and district offices, reducing the associated operational costs, and most of all, reducing the teaching staff and support costs. In regular economic times, this could translate into higher teacher salaries and better health coverage. And with more course offerings, including a regional technical school and more qualified teachers, there should be less need for remedial coursework at state universities.
A drawdown from nearly 300 USDs to 40 RSDs would completely solve the shortage of superintendents and other administrators. However, such a plan would require legislation. And if approved, it would take 5 to 10 years to accomplish. Forty regional districts might save Kansas from $240 to $480 million per year, but there would be up-front costs for reconfiguring some buildings. And the higher cost of fuel for busses is a new development not considered when RSDs were first proposed.
Consolidation is definitely a “gray” issue, balancing the community pain of losing many local high schools with the benefits of better facilities, utilizing a smaller staff, and improving curricula.
However, some legislators could look at the possible $480 million per year as a pure tax cut. That would mean the pain of consolidation and no educational improvements, a clear no-win situation for both communities and schoolchildren.
When the Regional School District plan was proposed several years ago, we did not have a severe rural teacher shortage and our economy was not in crisis. No one would take the political risk to promote a statewide school consolidation plan.
Meanwhile, rural Kansas is shrinking. Some USDs are valiantly holding out. One northwest Kansas district shrank from 360 to 240 students but had enough teacher retirements that they did not have to let any teachers go. The superintendent retired and continued on with a one dollar a year salary. Such tactics are desperate. They attest to the commitment to small town culture. But they only delay the inevitable.
Since the RSD proposal was ignored, eight school districts have found their shrinking student enrollment too expensive to maintain. They merged with adjacent districts. Kansas has dropped from 303 USDs to 295 USDs.
Whether the newly-elected Legislators move toward the politically difficult decision to establish 40 regional districts in a quick and organized fashion, or whether Kansas slowly combines USDs in a haphazard order, school consolidation is going to occur in Kansas.
John Richard Schrock trains biology teachers and lives in Emporia, KS.
Editors, note: Two additional graphs are attached showing schools district and student numbers by schools size. If you use them, these are the captions.
EF-27-A. Before the recent consolidations, many small and medium schools served a smaller number of students. A few large districts served a large number of students. Eighteen schools graduated less than ten students per year.
EF-27-B. Under 40 Regional School Districts, most small schools would be merged into medium-sized districts. 255 local school boards and administrative offices would be eliminated with some absorption of personnel into new regional district offices.