With that in mind, have at it.
Introduction to Public Administration
1 December, 2004
THE THEORETICAL IMPACT OF SCHOOL CONSOLIDATION ON THE ROLE OF SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENTS
In the 1937-38 school year there were an estimated 119,000 public school districts. That number has steadily decreased, leveling off around 14,500 for the 2001-02 year. During the same period, the total number of public schools dropped from over 229,000 to 94,000. Even more dramatic, during the same period, the number of single-teacher elementary schools has deflated from over 121,000 to a barely measurable 400 (United States).
Several studies have examined the pressures which drove this massive institutional change (Berry; Killeen and Sipple; Louisiana Department of Education). This paper's purpose is to discuss the nature and consequences of school consolidation and then look into the impact this change has brought upon the administrators of public schools and theorize how it might affect their duties and responsibilities. Since the school district superintendent is the primary public administrator for a given district, I will focus on the impact this widespread consolidation has imposed on that job.
The Functions of the Superintendent
Though the details vary state-by-state, a superintendent functions much like many other public administrators and entertains many of the same duties and roles. As the figurehead of the local school organization, the superintendent must act in many capabilities to perform effectively. The superintendent must be able to lead his or her subordinates and guide them along to accomplish educational goals. This places a premium on the superintendent's ability to liaison and negotiate amongst the employees in the education system. In addition, education professionals, school board members, the media, parents, and teachers unions all have a stake in the outcome of a school district's educational output. The political expertise and personal networking required to navigate these waters is important to cultivate in order to have a smoothly running and productive organization (Meier and O'Toole).
Therefore, the superintendent's skills as a disseminator of information are highly valuable. To function as such, he or she performs as a lightning rod for the public, drawing away the emotions and disturbances that can distract secondary and tertiary administrators from the primary job of overseeing the district's education system. The superintendent is responsible for disclosing information during emergencies and acting as the central voice for local education concerns. Everything from the publication of test score data to stumping for school bond issues demands the superintendent to be an effective custodian of school and district information.
Of course, these two vectors of interpersonal relations and information management coalesce into the critical juncture of decision making. Action must eventually be taken in order to accomplish anything. As the principle manager of human and financial resources, the school superintendent must juggle a number of roles. The superintendent has a range of freedom to set and negotiate education policy, yet the school district has limited resources and must answer to the public and the larger government if they are misused or wasted. Continuing on in the same direction as before and enshrining the status quo will not survive the reality of societal and cultural change; entrepreneurial skills and the ability to adapt to challenges are worth possessing. Some degree of disorder is unavoidable and unexpected situations will always develop, so the able superintendent ought to adjust policies and priorities in order to maximize outcomes.
The Framework of School Consolidation
The consolidation of public education resources generally occurs along two broad levels: a district merging with another district and a school merging with another school. Both levels of consolidation can be accomplished through annexation, reorganization, dissolution, or co-oping (Sell, Leistritz, and Thompson 2-3). Co-oping is the most flexible method; it presents opportunities to pool resources so, for example, participation in sports can increase, bulk pricing deals for office supplies can be made, and specialized teachers can be utilized across a wider area (Sell, Leistritz, and Thompson 3). Dissolution is the process where "an existing school district ceases its active functions in its present organizational form and [its territory] is attached to one or more adjoining existing operational districts" (Decker, qtd. in Sell, Leistritz, and Thompson 3). This might be the first picture that materializes in the minds of people when they think of school consolidation: the assimilation of a district (usually the smaller organization) by another district (usually the larger organization). Reorganization, on the other hand, is the process that results in "the formation of a new school district by [...] the unification of two or more existing operational districts into one larger district" or the "separation of territory from one or more operating districts to create one or more new operating districts" (Decker, cited in Sell, Leistritz, and Thompson 3). Since annexation implies the acquisition of land not already owned by the government and given that the United States has remained mostly unchanged in terms of land area, annexation has fallen by the wayside and is no longer used (Sell, Leistritz, and Thompson 2).
In the first decades of the twentieth century, there was one champion of school consolidation who stood out. During the 1920's, Ellwood P. Cubberly advocated three central arguments: small schools suffered from a percentage of too many bureaucrats to teachers, consolidated schools offered higher quality facilities at costs lower than smaller schools , and larger schools offered the opportunity for teachers to concentrate in certain instructional areas (Berry 3). Cubberly's position amounted to the idea that "consolidated schools [...] provided economies of scale in administration, instruction, and facilities" (Berry 3). The merger of schools and school districts also occurs due to demographic and political trends such as old, antiquated buildings and floundering student enrollment, financial and legislative mandate pressure from state and federal governments, and inflation (Killeen and Sipple 4; Sell, Leistritz, and Thompson 3, 11). Newer research shows that "increased bureaucracy "tends to significantly increase attendance rates and significantly reduce dropout rates" (Smith and Larimer 734). An analysis of West Virginian high schools found "a modest negative impact of rurality on school performance," whereas rurality was used "as a proxy for district size" (Hicks and Ruskalkina 31).
Those opposed to relentless public education consolidation fought against a rising tide until the mid-70's when the consolidation movement slowed down and more research was conducted into the educational outcomes of larger schools and school districts (Berry 6). For example, Kieran Killeen and John Sipple found that "economy of scale arguments fail rural school districts in terms of transportation policy" (19). John Bohte, while examining Texas public school data, discovered both increased campus and district bureaucracy had a "negative impact on student performance" on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test (95). Without these new studies to support their opposition and given the intense pressure from so many sides to acquiesce, some say the "small-school advocates were usually dismissed as ignorant, cranky laypeople unaware of their own best interests" (Hampel 15). The results of this renewed interest in empirical data and a shift towards measuring the outcomes other than standardized tests have both vindicated some of what the consolidators had to say and raised important questions at the same time (Smith and Larimer).
Today, several growing consensuses are becoming apparent. One states that while there are economies of scale to be had on a simple spending-per-student basis, when you look at the cost per graduate, the costs are actually less (Mitchell). Many say increased student alienation, violence, drug use, weapons violations, and other social ills are a result of large schools (Cushman 37-38; Galletti 16-17; Mitchell). A common argument against mergers resurfaced in a study the demonstrated the increased numbers of children that had to utilize school transportation arrive at school and the higher transportation costs incurred by the education system to deliver them (Killeen and Sipple). Liability issues surrounding abandoned schools arose in North Dakota (Sell, Leistritz, and Thompson 14). In line with contemporary educational trends, one study discovered that "increasing class size has a negative effect on the return to education" (Berry 12). And empirical blows have been thrown against the concept that bigger schools equate to more comprehensive curricula (Mitchell).
The Impact on the Superintendent
The importance of this issue as related to the administration of public education is expressed well by Christopher Berry:
"Indeed, the mix of school and district size is central to issues of authority and governance in education. The number and size of schools within a district directly influence the extent to which central authorities, such as superintendents and school boards, can be directly involved in the operations of their schools. In other words, school board members may face a conflict of interest between good education policy and the maintenance of their own authority over schools. [...] A shift toward smaller schools would require central authorities either to spend more time and money on oversight or to become less directly involved in the operation of individual schools. Thus, any consideration of moving towards smaller schools is intertwined with the decentralization of authority within school districts" (19).
For administrators considering a reversal of consolidation, there are also problems to consider. For example, corruption exploded throughout the New York City public school system, resulting in a culture of "patronage [that had] completely eclipsed education" as the primary goal (Segal 142).
So what does all this mean to the public administrators in charge of government school districts who face consolidation? I believe that while the various roles a superintendent plays remain the same, they are impacted in different ways.
First, no small amount of weight can be placed on the importance of effective communication to the parents of students who would be affected by consolidation (Sell, Leistritz, and Thompson). In small communities, the school is perceived to be a critical part of the social infrastructure (Hampel 18); some residents can be expected to worry about the "end of their community's viability" (Sell, Leistritz, and Thompson 44). A superintendent that assuages fears of community implosion and settles concerns about the unknown is making a very good long-term investment. The subject of property tax changes, something never too far from a homeowner's mind, must be addressed as well. Though I was unable to uncover significant research into the impact the loss of a school or school facilities has on the overall picture of a community's retail economy, residents will worry about it (Sell, Leistritz, and Thompson 17). However, unless the geographic areas that will be consolidated are for the most part culturally homogenous, the diversity of opinion, traditions, and institutions will increase within the new school district. A superintendent unaware of the diversified makeup of his or her enlarged realm of responsibility might not be prepared to handle cultural clashes as they arise, undermining the stability of the entire project.
A related concern is the communication amongst employees, professional staff, and the superintendent. Like any organization going through a consolidation and reformation, the workers within will probably be concerned about the future of their jobs. On the other hand, given the "high observed correlation between school size and teacher salaries," the superintendent does possess some bargaining chips to use with teacher's unions (Berry 19).
I'd propose thinking ahead and generating at least a policy framework before going public with consolidation plans as another suggestion. A perfect example would be the changes in school transportation. Given the great worry parents feel about increased bussing distances, the prudent superintendent should already have transition strategies developed that address how the educational foci of the school district will change within some communities (Sell, Leistritz, and Thompson 26). Given the significance principals have in the process of implementing policy, including them in your deliberations is critical (Hope and Pigford). However, just charging ahead without the input of the public can break with the primary importance of communication to the superintendent's constituents.
Some studies indicate that, rather than a magic administrative bullet, school consolidation can create new organizational problems as a result of the new "economies of scope" enlarged districts would wield. For example, since it has been found that "poverty dampens student achievement most in larger schools" (Louisiana Department of Education 9) and there are an increasing number of non-educational tasks demanded of schools (Smith and Larimer 731), a paradox occurs: larger school districts spend a greater and increasing percentage of money on those tasks and less on teachers and primary learning materials (Louisiana Department of Education 13). Functions like fighting higher levels of criminal activity, higher dropout rates, and faculty and student emotional isolation are likely to soak up funding normally allocated for direct educational purposes. Superintendents should be aware of these issues before they arrive as nasty surprises at a PTA meeting or from a reporter's question. Administrators should keep in mind - with a healthy does of good humor, I might add - the finding that "teachers, as street-level bureaucrats, generally add more to the education process than administrators" (Bohte 95).
In summary, I believe the roles most important to an administrator who faces district or school consolidation are the interpersonal and informational. Kenneth J. Meier and Laurence J. O'Toole concluded that "network management can contribute to program performance" and it is hard to find fault with the logic behind it (697). The school district superintendent's primary goal of overseeing a local system of education depends on this.
Berry, Christopher. "School Size and Returns to Education: Evidence from the Consolidation Movement, 1930-1970." Education Next 4.4 (2004) 28 Nov. 2004 http://www.educationnext.org/unabridged/20044/56.pdf
Bohte, John. "School Bureaucracy and Student Performance at the Local Level." Public Administration Review. 61.1 (2001): 92-99.
Cushman, Kathleen. "Shrink Big Schools for Better Learning." The Education Digest. 65.6 (2000): 36-39.
Hope, Warren C. and Aretha B. Pigford. "The Principal's Role in Educational Policy Implementation." Contemporary Education. 72.1 (2001): 44-47.
Galletti, Susan. "School Size Counts." The Education Digest. 64.9 (1999): 15-17.
Hampel, Robert L. "The Long Road to Small Schools." The Education Digest. 67.8 (2002): 15-20.
Hicks, Michael J. and Viktoriya Rusalkina. "School Consolidation and Educational Performance: An Economic Analysis of West Virginia High Schools." Center for Business and Economic Research. (2004) 30 Nov. 2004 http://www.marshall.edu/cber/research/SchoolConsolidation.pdf
Killeen, Kieran and John Sipple. "School Consolidation and Transportation Policy: An Empirical and Institutional Analysis." The Rural School and Community Trust. (2000) 28 Nov. 2004 http://www.ruraledu.org/docs/killeen_sipple.pdf
Meier, Kenneth J. and Laurence J. O'Toole. "Public Management and Educational Performance: The Impact of Managerial Networking." Public Administration Review. 63.6 (2003): 689-699.
Mitchell, Stacy. "Jack and the Giant School." Institute for Local Self-Reliance. 2000. 29 Nov. 2004 http://www.newrules.org/journal/nrsum00schools.htm
Segal, Lydia. "The Pitfalls of Political Decentralization and Proposals for Reform: The Case of New York City Public Schools." Public Administration Review. 57.2 (1997): 141-149.
Sell, Randall S., F. Larry Leistritz, and JoAnn M. Thompson. "Socio-economic Impacts of School Consolidation on Host and Vacated Communities." Department of Agricultural Economics. Agricultural Economic Report No. 347. (1996).
Smith, Kevin B. and Christopher Larimer. "A Mixed Relationship: Bureaucracy and School Performance." Public Administration Review. 64.6 (2004): 728-736.
State of Louisiana. Louisiana Department of Education. "Small School Districts and Economies of Scale." (2003) 28 Nov. 2004 http://www.louisianaschools.net/lde/uploads/3475.pdf
United States. Department of Labor. National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics, 2003. July 2003. 28 Nov. 2004 http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d03/tables/dt085.asp