Machell Recommends School Consolidation

School district consolidation in Oklahoma could result in saving approximately $27 million for education funding, according to a report recently published by James Machell, dean for the University of Central Oklahoma’s College of Education and Professional Studies.

“We need to find a way to get money into more schools,” Machell said. “That was the main motivation: trying to generate ideas on how we could get more money in schools, knowing that we can’t continue to increase taxes all of the time.”

Machell began writing this policy paper over the summer and titled the report, “‘Right-sizing’ Oklahoma Districts.” Within, Machell examined district size, enrollment and superintendent compensation in Oklahoma school districts.

Through Machell’s recommendation, the school districts that have less than 1,000 students in their district would be consolidated into nearby school districts that have more students.

As of last year, the Oklahoma State Department of Education showed that 391 of the 525 districts in the state had less than 1,000 students. Within that 391, 282 districts had less than 500 and 29 districts had less than 100 students.

“I found that there were four other states that were very similar to Oklahoma, each having about 700,000 students in the state,” Machell said.  “Of these, all of them have between 160 and 220 school districts, so most of them have about 200 school districts. We have got 600, three times as many.”

This data Machell found regarding the similar states is from the National Center for Educational Statistics 2015-16 report that included Alabama, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Utah.

That same report from NCES showed that Oklahoma averaged 1,141 students per district while the average between the other four states was 3,736.

“While the total number of students and number of schools are similar across these five states, Oklahoma has a disproportionately large number of districts which serve a disproportionately small number of students,” Machell said in the report.

There are, however, some issues with consolidating school districts. Machell said in his report that a majority of these school districts are in rural areas, and local citizens of these areas fear that losing their school district will erode the vitality of the many struggling rural communities in the state.

“What I am suggesting in this study to most people is common sense, it just makes perfect sense; it seems like we are wasting money by having too many small school districts,” Machell said. “Yet these ideas are not popular with those who are in real small communities around the state.”

Machell said it would be a loss of identity as well for that community, because they are connected to their school district, and for some it is difficult because some districts that would consolidate together are rivals.

Sen. Gary Stanislawski, R-Tulsa, chair for the Senate Education Committee said he is sure the data in the report is correct in saying that the state could save $27 million a year, and the benefit to students in consolidating districts would be good. However, there are two main difficult areas in consolidating.

Stanislawski said the first difficulty is that in parts of the state, such as western Oklahoma where there has already been consolidation, there are still school districts with just a couple hundred students, and they live many miles away from another school district.

“In practice, we would have to be much more careful on the distance between districts before requiring the districts to consolidate,” Stanislawski said.

The other difficulty is just looking at the size of the school district, Stanislawski said. Instead, he said the students outcome should be taken into consideration.

Schools are reviewed on a grade scale of A-F, and that is how Stanislawski proposes schools should be viewed in consolidation.

“It’s not just focusing on small districts, but what district has the best outcomes for students whether they are small or large, and those that do not have good outcomes direct some type of change to a district that has better outcomes,” Stanislawski said.

Superintendents are not typically in favor of consolidating school districts, and that is largely because for some this directly impacts their school. Both Stanislawski and Machell said this is partly why legislators don’t back consolidation politically, because several representatives are from these smaller communities.

“[Consolidation] would require laws or rules to be passed by elected leaders in the state and they are not prone to doing these kinds of things because it makes them unpopular with their constituents,” Machell said.

Stanislawski said consolidating is politically very difficult to do, but he thinks the report might help.

“Any time that you can offer data for proposing change I think it is very helpful, but it won’t necessarily cause that much change that legislators will go ahead and support it when they have not in the past,” Stanislawski said.

Over the years some school districts have consolidated in Oklahoma, but this type of consolidation is not currently backed politically amongst the legislators. Stanislawski said the current consensus is a no.

“What I am advocating for is a pretty big change and it would also represent a shift in culture,” Machell said.

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