Oklahoma has too many school districts and could save nearly $30 million if it had a number of districts more in line with states of similar size, according to a policy paper recently published by an education professor.
In a report titled “Right-sizing Oklahoma Districts,” James Machell, dean of the University of Central Oklahoma College of Education and Professional Studies, highlights Oklahoma as an outlier when it comes to the number of school districts.
With 525 school districts last year, Oklahoma had three times the number found in most states with statewide enrollment of a comparable size.
Oklahoma served about 700,000 students last year.
“It sounds like common sense to say we need fewer school districts, but I also understand that this issue is political dynamite,” Machell said.
School district consolidation has often been a popular talking point for some lawmakers who say a reduction of superintendents and other administrative costs could funnel more money into classroom budgets and teacher pay.
But it’s often a tough sell in rural communities, especially during an election year.
“Local citizens fear that losing their local school district will further erode the vitality of the many struggling rural communities that exist in the state,” Machell wrote in his policy paper. “Legislators and other elected leaders are reluctant to make decisions related to school reorganization out of concern for the negative impact on local communities and the related negative impact on constituent support resulting in diminished support for future re-election efforts.”
Gubernatorial candidates Kevin Stitt, a Republican, and Drew Edmondson, a Democrat, have both said they would defer to local school districts in deciding to consolidate, rather than force the issue.
In recent years, lawmakers have held interim studies and convened task forces to research the issue of district consolidation.
But the issue has never gained widespread support among lawmakers.
Last year, Gov. Mary Fallin issued an executive order that would force the state to look at consolidating a school district that spends less than 60 percent of its budget on instructional expenditures.
A Sept. 1 deadline to compile a list of districts below the 60 percent threshold went unmet by the state Board of Education.
In his report, Machell recommends consolidating some of the 391 Oklahoma school districts with enrollment below 1,000 students.
If Oklahoma decreased its number of districts to 200 with an average superintendent salary of $150,000, the state could save nearly $27 million, Machell claims.
“I am for increased investment in education, while at the same time increasing efficiencies and decreasing wasteful practices,” Machell said. “I believe (having this many school districts) is wasteful.”
Oklahoma averages 1,141 students per school district, compared to a national average of 3,736, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Kentucky, Utah and Louisiana, which each have statewide enrollments most similar to Oklahoma, have per districts averages more than three times larger than Oklahoma.
Sen. Gary Stanislawski, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said consolidation hasn’t received much political support at the state Capitol.
“I do not think there is any momentum to do school district consolidation, at least not right now,” said Stanislawski, R-Tulsa. “However, if there was legislation that was more specific to targeting schools that were close to one another to where they had to start sharing superintendents or sharing administrative services, I could see something like that getting some support.”
Stanislawski said he expects much of the focus on education in the coming legislative session to be on increased funding for schools.
“I see that push because I’m pushing for it, for more funding in the classroom,” Stanislawski said. “I see a major push for additional dollars in the funding formula.”
Edmondson has said he wants to increase the gross production tax to help increase classroom funding.
“If the Legislature opts not to do that and I can’t convince them to do it, I’m going to see to it that it’s on the ballot and give the voters an opportunity to say where the gross production tax ought to be,” Edmondson said. “And I think the voters will pass it.”
Stitt has said that he also wants to increase the education budget, including another increase in teacher pay, saying “that would be a budget priority” next legislative session.
But Machell said consolidation might be the quickest way to add more money to the education budget.
“You can’t justify this many school districts to anyone, Machell said.