Guest Column

In Consolidation Debate, Who Decides Children’s Best Interests?


School consolidation discussions have been active in the commonwealth of Massachusetts for the past few years, so we were not surprised to find Joseph Cronin’s article on school consolidation in Massachusetts in The School Administrator (May 2010).

Cronin suggests the opponents to his views on consolidation include professors at the University of Massachusetts and the leadership of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents “who believed small schools and school districts to be inherently superior and always cost effective.”

As representatives of these two groups, we felt compelled to offer a countering view as his statements do not accurately capture our ongoing attempts to offer a more balanced perspective on consolidation. We are not suggesting valid reasons do not exist for why two or more school districts might benefit from merging, but rather that legislatively mandated consolidation or a one-size-fits-all approach for Massachusetts — or any state — is not the answer.

Two Serious Flaws
In his Readiness Project Report, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick identified school district consolidation as a long-term goal for 2016-20 and beyond. In an effort to investigate the suggested benefits of the governor’s consolidation vision, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents’ Small and Rural School District Task Force completed a comprehensive review of the performance and costs associated with small school districts with 2,000 or fewer students (see for the full report). Findings indicate that small school districts in the state, on average, have higher state test scores, higher graduation rates, higher student attendance rates, higher college-going rates and lower student dropout rates.

On a more regional level, officials from Massachusetts’ Franklin County studied possible ways for its nine school districts to reorganize and/or consolidate to save resources and improve services. This report, commissioned by the New England School Development Council and directed by Cronin, was fundamentally flawed in at least two ways.

First, the report (known as the NESDEC study) bases its projections of savings by comparing Franklin County expenditures to the state average. It also compares the aggregate administrative costs of schools in a city versus schools in an entire county based merely on the notion that they serve the same number of students. That cost comparison is, to say the least, inconclusive. Clearly, to avoid sending young children, including kindergarteners, on bus rides for hours every day, Franklin County will need more schools and therefore more principals than a set of districts serving a more densely settled area.

The other school districts Cronin and his co-authors used as a comparison are Framingham, Plymouth and Quincy, which, despite being similar in size, all have widely fluctuating administrative costs. The lesson to be learned here is that administrative costs vary widely even among districts that are of the same size and of similar geography. Costs are much more dependent on a host of variables specific to the individual community. This finding further highlights the severe problem with the study’s methodology, which is based on comparison to state averages. As a result, the administrative savings purported to be possible are not delineated but only conjectured to exist.

Second, the NESDEC study is silent on the fact that public officials in Franklin County can no more change the geography and population distribution of those they serve than officials in economically depressed Holyoke or Chicopee can change the demographics and socioeconomic status of their populace. Both of these nearby cities in western Massachusetts have much more dense populations requiring minimal transportation costs. They also have much more severe challenges, with learning outcomes that are far inferior to Franklin County as a whole.

Purported Outcomes
Simply put, the data supporting the notion that merging existing school districts will save money and/or raise student achievement in Massachusetts does not exist. Compare, then, the state’s push toward regionalization with the strong support from the state board of education, the legislature and the remainder of state education hierarchy for charter schools. The latter tend to be small as well as split (meaning not K-12), and therefore they suffer from the supposed deficiencies the state is identifying among school districts as vestiges of an outmoded and clunky 19th-century system of local government.

Needless to say, charter schools are completely shielded from various legislative proposals in the past two years mandating changes on non-charter public schools.

Given these facts, we believe the state’s push toward regionalization has little to do with its purported outcome. The only sure outcome of wholesale regionalization is the consolidation of power over the future of public schools in the hands of a few appointed officials at the state level.

While some small school districts may be good candidates for locally initiated consolidation, it is equally true there are small districts that are high performing and cost effective that should not be penalized based solely on their size. Going forward it will be important for community and state officials to sort through these distinctions to design a continuum of supports that will maintain and advance the strong perform-ance of public school districts.

Nicholas Young, past president of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, is superintendent of the Hadley Public Schools in Hadley, Mass. E-mail: Farshid Hajir is a professor of mathematics at University of Massachusetts Amherst and chair of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee.