Last week’s State Board of Education
heard a detailed explanation of the figures involved
in consolidating Kansas schools. There would be no huge
immediate savings. Voluntary consolidation of many of
the smallest rural schools is underway. And the issue
is in the hands of the Legislature.
In 1945, each Kansas attendance center
(~8,000) was a school district. By 1960, this dropped
to 2,600. In 1963, the Kansas legislature set up our
unified school district system that gave us 303 USDs.
Since 2002, voluntary consolidations have reduced Kansas
to 293 USDs. More small schools are voluntarily consolidating
as rural populations decrease and finances force mergers.
The Board heard a summary of two Kansas
consolidation studies (1992 and 2001) and two nationwide
studies on rural consolidation (2007) and school size,
climate and student performance (1996).
Bigger schools have economies of scale;
expenditures-per-pupil are greater for smaller schools.
Cost Per Pupil
Forced consolidation plans (not discussed
at KSBE) would dramatically reduce the number of Kansas
USDs, reducing administrative and some teaching staff,
and leaving most elementary attendance centers but hubbing
the high schools. This would require building of substantial
high school capacity, and forwarding high school students
would be an ongoing increased transportation cost.
But there would be no immediate savings
since current law maintains the school budgets for three
to five years, depending on the size of the school districts
consolidated. This provision has been a motivation for
some recent voluntary consolidations. However, after
the initial 3–5 years, savings remain minor when only
two small districts combine to make a slightly larger
Large savings, after initial rebuilding,
would only be possible when there is a compulsory consolidation
that consolidates clusters of small districts, perhaps
drawing down to 40–50 regional school districts. And
this option, which was not discussed, would only begin
to yield savings after the 3–5 years hold-harmless period.
Studies show that nationwide, small
school climate and student performance are better, dropout
rates are lower, and social factors are more positive
in small schools. Dropouts for instance are three times
more likely to be unemployed or in prison than high
school graduates. However, the national comparison with
large schools, which includes many inner city schools,
may not hold for Kansas, where many large schools—such
as those in Johnson County—have low dropout rates and
very high college-going rates.
School districts can also be too large.
And the 20 largest Kansas districts account for nearly
52% of total state school expenditures. Some large schools
use school-within-a-school plans to restore group identity
and personal attention, but probably with varying degrees
On the negative side, there is no more
fierce a battle than a contested school consolidation.
Recent consolidations have been voluntary, with heavy
public support shown in the required voting. But outside
mandated consolidation means war, as a community sees
its identity threatened. School closure can result in
out migration, population decline, property devaluation,
and diminished local support for the educational system.
The State Board appears to have no intention of recommending
forced consolidation. Small voluntary consolidations
will continue. They will be haphazard and provide no
In any case there is a legislative report
due January 10, 2010.
Five years from now, will Kansans look
back at a missed opportunity?
Upon close inspection, few issues are
black-and-white. This one is a heavy shade of gray.