Suggest school consolidation in Kansas and you had better have a getaway car waiting. People in small rural towns consider the local school to be their last source of community identity. Therefore the proposal by four school administrators to consolidate our 303 Kansas Unified School Districts into 40 regional educational districts can get the heart rate up fairly fast. Before anyone gets riled, they ought to look at the proposal a bit closer.
In 1945, Kansas had 8,000 little school districts. By 1960, this dropped to 2,600. And then studies suggested that 250 was probably the final best number. In 1963, the Kansas legislature set up the USDs–our unified school district system–that essentially gave us the 303 USDs we have in Kansas today.
Now, there is this new “regional district model” 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. Some administrators are saying, “if we have a McDonalds, we can keep our school.” The new plan also looks at the Kansas Rural Health Network where smaller unspecialized community hospitals are hubbed around a few large specialized hospitals. This refines the model for transporting young students to local elementaries and having secondary students then continue to ride on to more centralized high schools.
Now, 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 17current 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 regional district plan uses optimum sizes; while some rural schools are too small, some current schools in Salina and Manhattan are considered too large.
These models are theoretical. The actual regional districts would have their own elected school boards and determine the consolidation best for their area.
Benefits? Perhaps: Higher teacher salaries. Better health insurance negotiations. More uniform (that is larger) class sizes. And more course offerings including a regional technical school. 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. This could solve current shortages in superintendents and teachers. However, such a plan would require legislation. And if approved, it would take 5 to 10 years to accomplish. 40 regional districts MIGHT save Kansas from $240 to 480 million per year.
But you don’t save anything if you don’t move from the many small school boards and superintendents to one regional board and superintendent, and close some small schools so fewer teachers can teach average-size classes. Some of the initial savings would have to be invested in the restructured schools. The ongoing savings could then underwrite the higher teacher salaries, more course offerings, and other benefits. Consolidation is definitely a “gray” issue, balancing the pain of losing some local schools with the benefits of better facilities and higher teacher pay.
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. With the benefits uncertain, the steps to move schools toward consolidation unclear, and the public heavily opposed on a superficial level, it appears the legislature has shelved any school consolidation plans for now.
Meanwhile at their February meeting, the State Board approved a request from the Herndon and Atwood districts to hold a local vote on consolidating. And some other small rural Kansas towns are already dying regardless of whether or not they keep their school. Whether we move dramatically toward 40 regional districts, or slowly erode our conventional districts, school consolidation is going to occur in Kansas.