New report finds savings in school district consolidation

BARRE — On the eve of a legislative debate on a bill to consolidate the state’s school districts, the Agency of Education released a joint report showing small school districts spend more to educate students than their larger counterparts, and offer fewer educational opportunities.

Tuesday, the Agency of Education and Rutgers University released a report titled “When is Small Too Small? Efficiency, Equity & the Organization of Vermont Public Schools,” which is intended, in part, to refute previous study claiming school district consolidation would not save money or improve students’ education experiences.

In January, Daniella Hall and Ian Burfoot-Rochford, researchers at Penn State University, released a study asserting district consolidation in Vermont would not save money, and argued for the preservation of small schools and the state aid that allows them to be financially viable.

However, the new report — from Wendy Geller, data administration director for the Agency of Education, and Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers Graduate School of Education — asserts that Hall and Burfoot-Rochford’s study presents a “selective, inaccurate, and imbalanced characterization” of their source materials by “conflating” studies on school consolidation with studies on school district consolidation.

“What this report does is document the fact Vermont’s numbers are so much smaller than most people’s that it’s not the same conversation and so the previously cited information from Penn State was not really pertinent to Vermont’s situation,” said Stephen Dale, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association.

Hall and Burfoot-Rochford did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday.
The new report cites a 2007 study of school district consolidation in rural upstate New York from authors William Duncombe and John Yinger — who Geller called “seminal thinkers in the field” — that looked at 12 school district mergers from 1985 to 1997.

The study concluded that a school district that doubled in size, from 300 students to 600 students, saw an average decrease in its per-pupil spending of 61.7 percent.

The study notes that many district mergers necessitated the school construction. However, even when taking into account capital construction costs, a district that doubled in size from 300 students to 600 students still saw its per-pupil costs decrease by an average of 31.5 percent.

The study also looked at course work and non-academic activities and determined that high schools with fewer than 400 students offered students substantially less than larger high schools.

The AOE-Rutgers report also looked at data in Vermont, finding that at the elementary level, on average, smaller school districts spend $1,000 more per pupil than larger districts.

“What we are hearing increasingly is that our smaller schools, or the smallest schools, are challenged with regard to breadth of opportunity for students, impressions of sustainability in their own communities and the fact that they’re making investments, in some cases, at fairly substantial rates, just to hang on to what they have and not to expand in any manner,” said Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association.

The report comes as House lawmakers prepare to debate the merits of a bill that would consolidate the state’s school districts into units with at least 1,100 students that offer pre-K-12 education.

Lawmakers are expected to take up the bill today.

Read the report:

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