Will school district consolidation task force make the grade? (Whipple)

In an April 30 editorial, the News Journal suggested that the governor and state legislators are running out of Band-Aid fixes for budget shortfalls and should start considering more basic changes. Why does Delaware have 19 school districts, for example, while Austin, Texas with a similar-size population has only one? And to those who say Delaware is not like Austin, “can Delaware afford not to consider every option?” The status quo is expensive, and Delaware’s public schools haven’t been achieving stellar results, especially for “the neediest of our kids.”

Lo and behold, a task force has now been established to study the potential benefits of consolidating school districts and recommend a path forward. The designated reporting deadline is January 30, 2018. House Concurrent Resolution 39, passed on
July 2, 2017.

Two of the principal sponsors, DE Representatives Earl Jacques (D-22nd District, chairs House Education Committee) & Joe Miro (R-27th District, a retired school teacher), maintain that this will not be an exercise to justify a preconceived conclusion. Delaware school district task force takes open-ended approach, News Journal,
6/26/17.

We feel it is vital to thoroughly and critically examine this issue from all angles, weigh the pros and cons and report back. If the analysis finds that we can reasonably reduce expenditures without impacting the service our schools provide, then we should take those steps.

Let’s hope so, because school district consolidation – say from the current 19 districts to 4 (one district for each country, plus a statewide vo-tech district) - could achieve significant benefits. The most obvious benefit would be to reduce the number of school district administrators. As of several years ago, 630 state employees in the educational sector were being paid over $100,000 per year. This included 302 principals/assistant principals, who would still be needed even if the school districts were consolidated, and some employees of the state Education Department. On an order of magnitude basis, district consolidation might permit the elimination of 200 highly paid administrators at an annual savings (salaries plus employee benefits) of $25+ million per year. More than 1,300 state employees earned $100,000 last year, Jonathan Starkey & Matthew Albright, News Journal,
4/5/15.

Additional savings could be expected from lower level staff reductions. A 2009 report of State Auditor Tom Wagner estimated potential statewide savings from school district consolidation at $50 million per year based on the elimination of 823 administrative positions including over 200 secretaries. State auditor recommends district consolidation, Doug Denison, Dover Post,
12/1/09.

Another potential advantage of school district consolidation would be streamlining the current organizational structure, which results in a lot of operating decisions being bucked up the line. Ron Russo of Caesar Rodney Institute, formerly the principal of St. Marks High School and founding president of the Wilmington Charter School, suggests that the school system would run better if management responsibility resided primarily at the school level. Thus, local building professionals (school CEOs) would be responsible for (1) hiring and firing staff, (2) instructional practices and methodology, (3) long-range planning and continuous improvement efforts, (4) support services such as transportation, food and maintenance, and (5) school budgets including the disposition of surplus operating funds. Education reform, Part 3, the next (first) step, Ron Russo, cridelaware,
8/21/17.

Delaware currently has a shared decision-making model for public schools –
Del. Code, Title 14, Chapter 8 - which calls for “members of the school community at the school and district levels” to “participate as equals.” It’s unclear that this model (enacted in 1996) has enhanced the responsibility of school CEOs or streamlined decision-making. Education reform, Ron Russo, 8/21/17.

Without the “Bold” power shift of placing operational decision making in the hands of local building professionals, many functions would continue to be duplicated (and triplicated) at the district and state levels along with excess administration and support personnel. 

The natural tendency for the task force will be to recommend against school district consolidation – cost savings illusory, would distract from real problems, etc. Consider the impressions of an attendee at the initial meeting. Additional thoughts on consolidation task force meeting, Brian Stephan, bluedelaware.com,
8/3/17.

More than once we heard that the goal of this task force is to do what is best for our students. The goal isn’t (necessarily) saving money or spending more, or closing schools, or erasing lines on a map, it’s to figure out if re-configuring (geographically) our education system in Delaware will benefit children. While that stated goal may be true, I have a hard time accepting it seeing the dearth of publicity this meeting had and the lack of parent inclusion on the task force itself. Seriously, 137,000 school children, 19,000 staff, $2 billion in funding, 3 parents on the task force. THREE.

One step that might help would be consultation with people from other states who can provide input on how larger school districts have worked in practice. Advice for consolidation task force, Jerry Martin, News Journal,
7/2/17.

There’s one problem with the task force created to study this. Seven out of 16 total members have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Consolidation could mean job loss for some of them. The task force should reach out to independent resources for help. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) in North Carolina is a single district with over 147,000 students – more than all of Delaware with 19 districts. CMS’ total operating budget is $1.4 billion vs. Delaware’s $2.3 billion.

Another idea would be to quantify the potential savings more reliably by taking a “deep dive” into the finances of the public-school system. Only limited information is publicly available on how Delaware educational revenues are currently being spent – and the expenditures aren’t being audited in most cases. Consider this comment by Jack Wells in one of his many e-mails to state legislators and other interested parties on the subject.

Once again, we are not told by our legislators, why they remain silent when our Auditor of Accounts has failed to verify expenditures are legal and funds are being used for the purpose provided, a requirement of state law.

The message is clear, DOE and districts only tell us, we need more money, and they will never tell us how and where they are using our money. Why? Because our "legislators" have no interest in accountability, their only interest is how to get more of our money.


Bottom line, the issues presented go far beyond whether this state has the optimal number of school districts. A fundamental overhaul of the public-school system is needed, and Delawareans should be demanding action!
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