Release Date: July 20, 2009
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The University at Buffalo Regional Institute has taken a comprehensive look at school district governance in its latest policy brief, including potential cost savings from consolidation, opportunities for expanded regional cooperation and new models for leveraging technology to bridge educational divides.
With 98 school districts in Western New York and $4.1 billion in expenditures in 2007-08, public schooling represents the largest and most costly service provided by local government. New York State has consistently ranked among the top three states for per-pupil spending.
"Not surprisingly, the issue of schools consolidation has been at the center of local government reform debate in Western New York," said Kathryn A. Foster, institute director. "This analysis aims to shed light on this debate with a set of 'what if' scenarios for school governance reform in the region."
Key drivers behind the push to consolidate are cost efficiencies and increased educational equity by the redistribution of educational opportunity, quality and resource allocation.
But the brief -- "School Limits: Probing the Boundaries of Public Education" -- finds that only districts with small enrollments are likely to accrue substantial cost savings from district mergers.
"Economies of scale from district consolidation are most noticeable when small districts merge," said Peter A. Lombardi, a policy fellow at the institute and author of the brief. "For larger districts, those with more than 2,000 students, for example, efficiency gains are often much smaller and are sometimes nullified by the costs of merging."
Studies of pre- and post-merger costs suggest that school districts with enrollments under 1,000 are the best candidates for mergers. Currently, 36 of the region's 98 districts fit that description, accounting for 10 percent of the region's enrollment and 11 percent of total spending. Based on published models, the institute estimates that merging these 36 districts with neighboring districts would save about $133 million per year, or 20 percent of their current combined $665 million budget.
From a historical perspective, Western New York has experienced significant schools consolidation. In 1920, there were more than 1,500 school districts serving students dispersed across Western New York. Due to a combination of reform in state law, rural-to-urban population shifts and the introduction of the school bus, the number of districts has fallen precipitously over the years, to about 1,000 in 1940, to 130 in 1962 and to 98 today. The most recent merger in the region was between Cattaraugus Central and Little Valley Central in 2000. The Brocton and Fredonia districts in Chautauqua County are currently studying a merger.
"Economic as well as political barriers to consolidation have slowed down mergers in recent years," said Lombardi, adding that in many cases consolidation, if poorly conceived, can be an inappropriate model for educational service delivery. "Some aspects of public education are ideally regionalized, while others should be kept local."
In addition to consolidation, cooperation is another model of regionalization examined by the institute, as highlighted by BOCES, or the Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, which allow districts to pool resources for programs and services not conducive to delivery at a local level.
Currently, the region's seven BOCES provide career and technical training and special education, as well as administrative services such as labor relations, employee recruitment and library and media services. One model would see BOCES play an expanded role in providing district services, essentially becoming central administration for member schools to oversee business services, human resources, transportation, accounting and information technology.
"This is a model ripe with potential for expanding shared services for schools -- many of the same benefits are afforded to districts without the challenges from consolidation," said Lombardi. "And schools get to keep their football teams."
The institute's analysis also reviewed equity issues related to regionalization. Many regions have implemented policies of fiscal redistribution to address inequities related to school districts in areas of extreme poverty. In fact, in New York State, poorer districts receive larger sums of state aid on a per-pupil basis due to aid formulas that consider district tax bases and poverty levels. The potential to move students to equalize areas of advantage and disadvantage is another model tested in the policy brief. Yet gaps in academic performance remain even after moving people and money, making the issue of integration and resource redistribution controversial and challenging.
The transfer of resources for greater equity can still occur via other means, the brief states.
"What if Western New York saw an expansion of regional distance learning networks that could bridge geographic as well as educational differences?" asked Foster. "The region would see significant and efficient broadening of access to teachers and resources for 'boundless' education."
The pursuit of networked governance is among the institute's set of recommendations for moving forward the schools reorganization debate. Also identified as a next step is reforming state law to empower BOCES for increased service delivery. Finally, the institute encourages a regional-level process for schools stakeholders -- from parents to administrators -- to evaluate different approaches to educational service delivery.
"Let's put everything on the table -- from consolidations to new models for health insurance," said Foster. "The region needs a full debate and investigation of the range of governance reform options available."
"School Limits" is part of the institute's policy brief series, which informs regional issues with timely, reliable data and analysis. All policy briefs are available online at http://regional-institute.buffalo.edu.
The UB Regional Institute is an interdisciplinary research and policy center applying evidence-based analysis to issues affecting regions. With a focus on the binational Buffalo Niagara region, the institute leverages its expertise, capacities and partnerships to ask critical questions, inform debate and guide change. A major center of the University at Buffalo, the institute is a unit of the UB Law School.
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.