Monday, February 28, 2011

School Consolidation

My Upstate New York village has had a school for quite a while; it may not have a school for much longer. New York has long had a consolidation "incentives" policy, pushing "central schools" like ours (which serves neighboring villages and the rural area around) into mergers into larger, more central, more remote schools. There is an argument that consolidation saves on overall costs; there is a certainty that it shifts costs, and control, from the local taxpayers (and their representatives) to the state taxpayers (and theirs).

I don't much like the idea; I don't think I'd be here if this consolidation had happened by the mid-80s, when I came with four small children and talked with Colgate faculty about research, about teaching, and about life in the village where the new school playground was a big deal. We were tired of a 20-minute drive to school which automatically created distance between our eldest and his classmates, between us and their parents; it was good to be a 15-minute walk away. Some people find community easily, but some of us don't, and putting obstacles up is not good. But it may happen anyway. On January 20th, Board Gets Dire Budget Outlook; Approves Seeking Grant for Merger Study.

the board approved having Bowers seek a state grant to fund a study of some sort of merger/consolidation with another neighboring district...
and tonight, well, Meeting About HCS Future Feb. 28
To be discussed: ... the pros and cons of various school consolidation proposals... The meeting -- which is not organized by the school district -- will be held in Hamilton Public Library's Community Room at 7p.m. The meeting is open to the public.

Well, I look for arguments on the web, arguments about school consolidation generally and about Upstate New York in particular, and I certainly find some.

From the Cornell Department of Education, 1999, I find (PDF) School Consolidation and Transportation Policy: An Empirical and Institutional Analysis and it's overall skeptical about consolidation, indeed perhaps cynical about consolidation:

Traditional reasons for consolidation were discussed and shown to (a) falter under transportation efficiencies, and (b) create disproportional impacts small, rural schools. Institutional arguments demonstrated how ideological reasons have outweighed traditional and rational explanations for consolidation in light of the transportation disadvantage evidence shown for of rural schools. The institutional arguments show how consolidation has been principally justified according to the exaction of state authority over local school districts (Strang, 1987). Secondarily, consolidation has been supported through national policy towards housing and land use development....

From the National Rural Education Association, there's a similarly skeptical (PDF)Rural School Consolidation Report with lots of references:

In studies from 1960 through 2004, there has not been evidence that consolidation of small districts into larger districts has necessarily reduced fiscal expenditures per pupil (Hirsch, 1960; Sher and Tompkins, 1977; Valencia, 1984; Jewell, 1989; Kennedy et al., 1989; Eyre and Scott, 2002; Reeves, 2004). The Rural School and Community Trust concluded: “School consolidation produces less fiscal benefit and greater fiscal cost than it promises. While some costs, particularly administrative costs may decline in the short run, they are replaced by other expenditures, especially transportation and more specialized staff. The loss of a school also negatively affects the tax base and fiscal capacity of the district. ..." Mary Anne Raywid concluded that, “When viewed on a cost-per-student basis, they (small schools) are somewhat more expensive. But when examined on the basis of the number of students they graduate, they are less expensive than either medium-sized or large high schools.” (1999, p.2, EDO-RC-98-8)... A study by Lyson (2002) looked at the fiscal impact and socioeconomic effects of consolidation on communities in New York, most of which once had a school. He found that towns that lost their school had a lower social and fiscal capacity compared to towns that maintained their schools. Other reports have also indicated that when a community loses a school, the tax base and fiscal capacity of the district is negatively affected. ... Cotton (1996) built an impressive case for the advantages of small schools by a quantitative study of the literature. Her analysis indicated an advantage for small schools in the following areas: achievement, attitude toward school, social behavior problems, extracurricular participation, feelings of belongingness, interpersonal relations, attendance, dropout rate, self-concept, and success in college among others.

and similarly, there's The Fiscal Impacts of School Consolidation: Research Based Conclusions: Rural School & Community Trust

But what might have been saved in administrative costs was often more than offset by increases in other costs. As a result, although not statistically significant, total costs per pupil actually increased more in the 19 consolidating districts than statewide average increases (32% compared to 29%), including in three of the five Arkansas districts.

That's all pretty negative. But in NY, there's a Syracuse U study of 12 rural-school consolidations suggesting the contrary: "Does School Consolidation Cut Costs?" by William Duncombe and John Yinger

We find that consolidation clearly cuts costs for small, rural school districts in New York. Moreover, the cost savings from consolidation appear to be driven almost entirely by economies of size. Consolidation does affect the time pattern of both operating and capital spending, but in both 29 cases, the initial impact is offset by later changes. Moreover, the time-related impacts on capital spending are roughly offset by the impacts on operating spending. We conclude that consolidation is likely to cut the costs of two 300-pupil districts by over 20 percent, cut the costs of two 900-pupil districts by 7 to 9 percent, and have little if any net impact on the costs of two 1,500 pupil districts.

Pluses and minuses; I'm a little skeptical of that degree of precision supposedly coming from N=12, with the wide range of variation that those 12 schools must have had, but still it is real data, and it's about our general area. They discuss this at AASA :: School District Consolidation: The Benefits and Costs(2):

This study is based on all the rural school districts in New York state between 1985 and 1997. During this period, 12 pairs of these districts consolidated. These consolidating districts had enrollments ranging from 250 to 1,990. To isolate the impact of consolidation, the costs in consolidating districts can be compared both with their own costs before consolidation and with the cost of similar districts that did not consolidate. ... .... Non-Cost Effects When deciding whether to encourage consolidation, state policymakers may want to consider several factors other than cost savings. To some degree, consolidation may break parents’ valued connections with existing schools, result in higher transportation costs for parents and students, or raise costs for improving school outcomes other than the test score measures included in existing studies.....the net benefits of consolidation to voters still could be far below the cost savings to the districts themselves. Some evidence on these issues comes from two recent studies of the impact of consolidation on housing prices............... found that, after controlling for student performance and property tax rates, consolidation lowers property values by about $3,000 on average. ............................this result simply indicates the cost savings from consolidation must be at least $3,000 per household to offset the apparent losses from consolidation associated with less local control, lessened accessibility of teachers and school administrators, higher parental and student transportation costs, or other unidentified negative effects. Another study of rural school districts in New York state by Yue Hu and John Yinger, “The Impact of School District Consolidation on Housing Prices” in the December 2008 issue of National Tax Journal, yielded results consistent with Brasington’s. .... ..... ......... Two additional findings from the Hu and Yinger study are worth mentioning. First, they found roughly a third of consolidation’s positive impact on housing prices is due to the aid bonus that consolidating districts receive in New York.... .............. The negative value placed on the impact of consolidation outside the school budget apparently is greater (in absolute value) for households in neighborhoods with relatively expensive housing, predominantly higher-income households, than for households where house values and rents are relatively low. In short, consolidation is popular with the average household in small rural school districts in New York state, but it is not popular among households with relatively valuable housing.

Well, it's data. And in local data, I see that in 2008-9, the budget was $10,602,046 / 639 = $16,591.62 per student, in HCS District:

The K-12 school building contains two gymnasiums, an auditorium, music rooms, high school library, elementary library, and cafeteria. The 2008-09 student enrollment of 639 students is supported by an approved budget of $10,602,046. There are currently 78 faculty members, which provide a very favorable student/teacher ratio. Average class sizes for elementary and core secondary subjects range from 14-22. The District’s current state aid ratio is 67 percent. Residents have been very supportive of the District’s programs with voter approval of school budgets annually since 1975. The school provides specialists in enrichment and innovation, art, physical education, music, guidance, reading, speech therapy, special education, and psychological services. The music program consists of vocal, band, and orchestra instruction and performance. At the secondary level advanced placement courses are offered in English, American History, World History and Calculus. The pre-engineering program, Project Lead the Way, is available to students in grades 9-12. Extensive curricular and extra-curricular programs have been established...
Of course the budget has risen since, and I don't think the enrollment has. And the budget is necessarily less than the true cost because it can't include the future cost of pension claims, so far as I know. So we're certainly spending a lot of money per student. (That's what you expect when voters approve every annual budget for 35 years in a row. Will they go on approving for a school that's moved away?) Is it sustainable? Incidentally, can not-quite-totally-broke New York State even afford the substantial sums it's offering in consolidation incentives? Maybe.

Or then again, maybe not.

update: I should also have linked to the older (original?) mention of the possibility, last November at Could Tight Finances Drive HCS to Consolidate?

Continued cuts in state aid could lead several area school districts -- including HCS -- to share even more services than they already do or even consolidate into one large district.

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