Texas law requires every school to have a principal, and every district a superintendent. This mandate, which seems logical at first glance, actually has a stifling effect on districts’ ability to find unique solutions to local problems.
In smaller districts, it could make sense to share principals between schools, or superintendents between districts. Three small districts within a county could remain independent, but hire a single “county superintendent,” thus significantly lowering administrative costs. Unfortunately, current law makes this and other innovative management arrangements unthinkable.
This is but one example of state mandates limiting public school efficiency. Hundreds more could be found quickly. And countless more with a little work.
With property owners facing sky-high taxes and seemingly endless calls from the education community for more money, it is necessary to ensure every dollar is used to its fullest potential to improve student performance.
But this requires that local school districts have the discretion to act creatively.
The term “consolidation” is often a dirty word in public schools. It conjures up images of community schools being swept away and children being bussed for hours to the “bigger and better” consolidated school. But Regional Service Center 17 in Lubbock has used a creative version of that “dirty” idea to lower costs for several of its school districts. The Regional Service Center provides payroll and accounting services, and in doing so, has helped participating districts to save between 50 and 80 percent annually on these functions.
Payroll and accounting services have little to do directly with student achievement or the culture of a school district, but the services are necessary. Through its innovative consolidation of services, Regional Service Center 17 and the participating school districts have freed up funds for use in more academically meaningful pursuits.
Understandably, citizens want their local schools and districts to remain independent. And frankly, the evidence may be on their side.
Decades ago, education reformers looked to district consolidation as a way to lower costs and ensure access to quality teachers and facilities. From 1960 to 1984, the number of school districts in the United States declined by more than 60 percent. But over the same period, school administration grew 500 percent. Clearly, consolidation has not led to decreased administrative costs on a national level.
Texas has followed similar consolidation patterns, downsizing from nearly 7,000 districts in 1936, to just over 1,000 today. Even so, districts range in size from dozens of students in parts of west Texas, to more than 200,000 in Houston ISD. Unfortunately, districts this large (and small) typically prove less efficient than more modestly sized districts.
The largest school districts have administrative and support staffs proportionally larger than those found in smaller districts. And administrative positions are growing faster than student enrollment.
Clearly, consolidation is not the cure-all to fix school finance. However, consolidation does not have to be a dirty word. There are benefits to be reaped from consolidation – but consolidation of services, not necessarily schools or districts.
Borrowing an idea from the private sector, innovative school districts are adopting the practice of shared services. Shared service arrangements enable districts to reduce the costs associated with functions such as transportation, food services, and human resources, just to name a few.
Shared services could also take the form of allied purchasing agreements, allowing small districts to take advantage of bulk pricing when ordering paper, desks, and even computers.
Shared services – less controversial and more effective than traditional consolidation – enable districts to save thousands of dollars each year on non-academic expenses. The Legislature should streamline state law, relaxing mandates and providing incentives that facilitate shared service agreements. In doing so, lawmakers will show through their actions that the priority of our public schools is the education of children, not the growth of bureaucracies.
Jamie Story is an education policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit research institute based in Austin.