Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Restructuring Oklahoma's School Districts

Preparing For Great Schools

  Various interests and advocates have appealed for several ways of reforming public schools in Oklahoma. And all of them have some merit, especially in light of specific local scenarios that impact their own community, in particular.
School District
TULSA (2nd)
MOORE (3rd)
EDMOND (4th)
UNION (7th)
NORMAN (8th)
LAWTON (9th)
JENKS (11th)
MUSTANG (12th)
OWASSO (13th)


VERDIGRIS (average, 112th)

WOODLAND (median, 264th)

BYARS (529th)
  Some have called for massive consolidation. And that is perhaps the biggest fix which can provide the biggest relief to strapped education financing. But small schools, particularly in rural parts of the state will quickly point to their academic performance, especially when compared to Oklahoma's largest school districts. That is their strongest argument; and it is a good one.
  Some have called for breaking up the largest school districts so that no district exceeds 8000 students in K-12 grades. This will impact 13 school districts out of the 531 in Oklahoma. 

  Only 6 school districts would require more than a simple split into 2. But only 2 districts (OKC & Tulsa) would require a split into 5 or more districts.
  Some of the biggest advocates for public education include the folks at the national thinktank called American Progress. And when seeking a major reform of something so massive, it is important to first find the areas where consensus is broad and change is the least threatening. AmericanProgress.org has compiled several studies which all point to a "sweet spot" range of enrollment that makes for the most efficient and most productive institution. They determine that an administration works best when the school district handles between 2000 to 4000 students. See the report, here:

From 529 Districts, Down to 149

  But Oklahoma's School Districts have a median enrollment of just 423 students. So every district smaller than Newcastle (60th largest district) would need to be seriously looked at for likely administrative consolidation. But not necessarily. Over 400 of the 531 districts have a very compelling pressure telling lawmakers and state administrators to begin a process of restructuring. Some say there should not be more school districts that state legislatures; and that would be a good guide to get us where we need to be; because it would lead to an average school district of a little over 4000 enrollment.
  Harmon County has just one school district (Hollis Public Schools). It is unthinkable that the legislature would force the administrating of those schools to a neighboring county. But Harmon is currently the only county with just one school district. Several rural counties commonly have 10-15 school districts and rarely does even one of them approach an enrollment of 2000 students. It is very probable that 5 or more school districts of say 300 enrolled students each; will be administrated by a new school board & administrative team. That is what consolidation will look like.
  Would this lead to closing schools? Not necessarily, but that is up to the new districts to decide. The first order of business would be to create newly combined districts into one new entity and call for school board elections. Then the new school boards would go through the deliberative task of assessing their new assets and responsibilities. Only when those "moving in" tasks are completed and the new administrations have completed their strategic planning, can the state move to the next set of goals.
  The ultimate task is to guide each new district to the point of preparing for a review from the Oklahoma Department of Education where administrative audits are compared to statewide norms. If the new district is expending too high of a percent of their funds on administrative overhead, the state may need to take further action, to insure that a quality share of the state funding makes it into the classrooms.
  The loud screams of resistance will come from 2 camps:
  1. Insecure school superintendents who may have to settle for being a lower-level job as an administrative assistant in a district restructuring.
  2. Small towns who's identity is tied to the local school. 

  The local school system is a source of great civic pride and the primary way that a community gathers together to celebrate the great promise of the new generation. That intrinsic quality is a great part of the fabric of Oklahoma's quality of life. This may be why the legislature seems to always cower in retreat at the thought of consolidation.
  But the reality is that each of these towns is expecting the state government to heavily subsidize their source of civic identity. And that is what's wrong with state government taking over the funding of a community institution. If a community really wants to insure the livelihood and future of their public school, they need to be willing to pay for that autonomy with independent funding. Otherwise the state has serious budgetary pressures that will outweigh the local status quo. 

David Van Risseghem

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