Gov. Mary Fallin says she wants to make school district consolidation a key point in her legislative agenda next year, with an emphasis on voluntary measures and encouragement for districts to share administrative services.
It remains to be seen whether she will be more successful than other public officials who have suggested in recent years that cutting back on the number of school districts in Oklahoma could allow more money to be used for classroom instruction rather than administration and overhead.
State schools Superintendent Janet Barresi sees consolidation as a local issue.
“No matter what I think about it, I think it's something that needs to be driven by teachers and the parents and the school boards in the individual districts,” Barresi said.
The difficulty in adequately funding the state's 521 school districts may force the issue.
“We're getting to that point where push is getting ready to come to shove, and districts are going to have to make some pretty tough decisions,” she said.
State Sen. Harry Coates, R-Seminole, has been thinking about school consolidation for years.
He represents District 28, which includes Seminole County and its 10 school districts.
“I think every county in Oklahoma has too many schools, not just Seminole County,” Coates said. “I think we have more districts than we need.
“You're going to have to school every kid somewhere. Preserve the community, but combine administration and transportation costs. Centralize it.”
The state's School Consolidation Assistance Fund acts as an incentive for consolidation.
The assistance fund currently has more than $6 million. If districts consolidate, the new district can receive up to $500,000.
“If two districts share the costs of one superintendent, there are real efficiencies to be gained,” Speaker Pro Tem Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, said. “Some districts have already tried that and I think it's a good tool to have available.”
Sen. Gary Stanislawski, R-Tulsa, proposed an interim study that would look at creating what he calls administrative efficiencies in common education. He said he wants to look into sharing some administrative personnel and ultimately putting more money toward students' education. The study will be considered by the Senate Education Committee.
“There are a number of ways for schools to cooperatively work together to reduce costs,” Stanislawski said. “That should be able to put more dollars in the classroom and keep more teachers employed.”
At least two other interim studies on school district consolidation have been proposed in the House and will be heard by the House Common Education Committee in the next few months.
Keith Gaddie, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma, believes there is a solution regarding school consolidation, but he said it will require a creative mind.
“For these little schools, you give them consolidation, but then you offer them the chance to preserve themselves as charter schools,” Gaddie said. “Then, the doors open for broader enrollment with easier transfer. If they are really good at what they do, they will not just survive, but thrive.”
District 15 Rep. Ed Cannaday said restructuring is the answer to consolidation issues in the state.
“It's not necessarily bringing small schools together, but reorganizing bigger, dysfunctional districts,” Cannaday, D-Porum, said. “I will demand that we look at reorganization in terms of effectiveness, not size. It should be based more on the achievements of students.”
Hickman said that when considering consolidation, there needs to be a long-term, ongoing evaluation of what works best.
“I don't foresee anything major involving a seismic shift in the next one to two years,” he said. “It's a natural process.”
No matter what I think about it, I think it's something that needs to be driven by teachers and the parents and the school boards in the individual districts. We're getting to that point where push is getting ready to come to shove, and districts are going to have to make some pretty tough decisions.”