LIMA — Just 22 students graduated from New Lima High School this year, but the 400-seat auditorium was full.
Family and community members crowded in to support one of the smallest graduating classes in one of the smallest districts in a state that ranks near the top nationally for its high number of school districts per capita.
New Lima, with 266 students, is one of 521 districts statewide. There are 10 school districts in Seminole County alone, a largely rural area of just 25,000 people 60 miles east of Oklahoma City.
As lawmakers look for ways to reduce the more than $2 billion spent yearly on common education, the idea of consolidating school districts often is suggested as a way to reduce costs, but that's a tough sell in Lima.
“Most of the kids that graduate at a school like New Lima have lived there all their life,” said Dewayne Streater, just-retired president of the New Lima School Board.
He shook hands with each student who walked across the stage at graduation. He has seen them grow up during his 13 years as president.
“The rural schools are really needed,” Streater said. “They are mainly the hub of the community. I don't see any way in the world that consolidation should really be an issue.”
In a nutshell
Lawmakers hesitate to support legislation that could close schools in the communities they serve, said Keith Gaddie, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma.
“It becomes an intense constituency issue,” he said. “In these little towns, the only thing holding the place together is the school, the post office and maybe a grocery. It's more than eight-man football.”
Gov. Mary Fallin said last month that school districts will be encouraged in the coming months to consolidate or share administrative services to free up more money for the classroom. Some lawmakers are starting to draft school redistricting proposals for next year's legislative session.
The budget for the state Education Department is $2.3 billion, or about a third of the state's $6.8 billion overall budget.
Sen. Gary Stanislawski, R-Tulsa, has proposed an interim study to look at creating “administrative efficiencies” such as sharing personnel. He's also a financial planner and president of Regent Financial Services Inc. in Tulsa.
“People often think, ‘If I only made more money …. One factor is increasing income, but the other is decreasing expenses,” Stanislawski said.
State Sen. Harry Coates, R-Seminole, said he thinks there are too many schools all over the state, not just in Seminole County. He also thinks superintendents' salaries need to be reconsidered. The average superintendent's salary statewide is $99,337. The average superintendent's salary in Seminole County is $93,310.
“I see the dying communities continuing to struggle because their pupil numbers will continue to go down and administrative costs will not,” Coates said. “Many schools collapse under their own weight.”
Oklahoma is No. 8 nationally for number of school districts per capita, according to 2009 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the most recent information available.
With 521 school districts, Oklahoma has more than Arkansas (239) and Oregon (197) combined. Oklahoma's schools employ 84,740 people, compared with 74,311 in Arkansas, 72,542 in Iowa and 59,682 in Oregon.
There have been about 100 school consolidations and annexations in Oklahoma since 1977.
It's difficult to make blanket school consolidation reforms in a state where there are so many rural communities, state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi said. She encourages districts to share administrators, which would eliminate some positions and some overhead costs.
“There is no one law we can pass in terms of consolidation that would be a positive thing for the state,” Barresi said. “I think it really is a matter of the local folks getting together and saying, ‘Is this really how we want to spend our tax dollars to educate our kids?'”
When she talks about districts sharing administrators, she is talking about people such as Larry Larmon. He split time as superintendent at Osage, where he earned about $80,000, and Spavinaw, where he earned about $30,000.