‘Optimal School District Size’

Reposted with permission from Nancy Jester’s blog:

“We had some fascinating education headlines last week.  Perhaps none more interesting than the report of comments made by Mark Elgart, CEO of AdvancED, the accreditation conglomerate that owns many regional accreditors including the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

“Here’s some background – Georgia is constitutionally limited in the number of school districts to 159 county districts and 21 city districts.  Last year, Rep. Tom Taylor filed HR 486; a bill calling for a statewide vote to amend the constitution to allow new school districts to form under certain conditions.  A feasibility study was commissioned for the City of Dunwoody to determine if an independent school district was viable from a revenue standpoint.  The study’s results indicate that a city school district would be financially feasible.

“Speaking before the Buckhead Business Association days after the feasibility study was made public, Dr. Elgart stated the current 180 school districts in Georgia are “far too many.” According to The Reporter Newspaper, he went on to state, “Georgia does not need to expand the number of school systems it has in the state,…It needs to contract it so it can use its resources differently than it currently does.”

“I’m puzzled why the head of an international accrediting agency would comment on a state political subdivision matter.  The organization of school districts is a self-determination made by the good citizens of our state.  Notwithstanding that fact, the suggestion that Georgia has “far too many” school districts is not supported by the research on the topic of optimal school district size.

“Here are just a few quotes from scholarly articles on the subject of school district size that support the need for Georgia to break-up its large districts.

  • In a study to examine if consolidating smaller school districts in Michigan would save taxpayers money, Andrew Coulson estimated the most cost-effective school district size in Michigan and the cost savings that would result from merging small districts and breaking up excessively large districts. From his analysis, Coulson found that the most cost-effective district size for schools in Michigan was 2,900 students. Districts that were either larger or smaller in size would generate higher per-pupil costs (Coulson, 2007). Consolidating smaller school districts to achieve this optimal size was estimated to result in a cost savings for the state of Michigan and local governments of approximately $31 million annually. In comparison, breaking up large school districts would produce an annual savings of $363 million. The savings from breaking up large districts is estimated to be 12 times greater than the savings that would be generated from merging small districts.

Center for Evaluation and Education Policy

Education Policy Brief


Revisiting School District Consolidation Issues

Terry E. Spradlin, Fatima R. Carson, Sara E. Hess, and Jonathan A. Plucker

  • Small size is good for the performance of impoverished schools, but it now seems as well that small district size is also good for the performance of such schools…

The Influence of Scale on School Performance: A Multi-Level Extension of the Matthew Principle

Robert Bickel, Marshall University; Craig Howley, Ohio University and AEL, Inc.

  • A study of Pennsylvania districts found that the lowest costs per student were in districts enrolling between 2,500 and 2,999 students (Standard & Poor’s School Evaluation Services, 2007).
  • A North Carolina report compared the district sizes of the five states with the best and worst SAT and ACT scores, high school graduation rates, dropout rates and retention rates. The study found that the states performing at higher levels on these performance indicators had smaller average district sizes (Sher & Schaller, 1986).
  • A Nebraska study demonstrated that smaller school systems academically outperformed larger ones within the state (Johnson, 2004). Researchers in Maine found that their 15 smallest districts produced higher graduation and postsecondary enrollment rates than their 15 largest districts (Bowen, as cited in Driscoll, 2008). In Massachusetts, a task force found that smaller districts had lower average dropout rates, higher attendance rates, greater extra-curricular participation, and were more likely to meet Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) targets than the state average (Driscoll, 2008). A study of small rural districts in New York found that students in these small districts tended to learn the basics at average or above average levels, when compared to students in other districts (Monk & Haller, 1986). In a series of five studies, researchers found that smaller districts and schools had greater achievement equity than larger districts and schools (Howley, 1996; Bickel & Howley, 2000).·

An Exploration of District Consolidation:

By:Kathryn Rooney and John Augenblick

Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, Inc.

May, 2009

“The abundance of research indicates that the optimal district size is certainly much smaller than DeKalb’s current enrollment.  That research shows us that per-pupil costs are minimized in much smaller districts; completely negating the argument of economies of scale with large districts.  Furthermore, academic achievement measurements are better in smaller districts, particularly for the economically disadvantaged.  In the face of this type of evidence it is difficult to understand any defense of the status quo or advocacy for even larger districts.  The evidence is clear and compelling that our students and taxpayers would benefit from breaking up large districts.”

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13 Responses to ‘Optimal School District Size’

  1. Stan Jester says:

    Fox News on Sunday
    Georgia Gang Weighs In On Elgart’s Comments
    Transcript of discussion

    Part of discussion by Dick Williams,

    And, the SACS report on DeKalb County was shoddy and flawed. Jeff, you above all know that. It was all hearsay, didn’t name any names. And, it resulted in the removal of the school board, and I think that’s good, because the board was dysfunctional. But, wait a minute, that SACS report didn’t make the case. They’re a shoddy agency. And, I encourage all these other school systems to look for other accreditations including the Georgia Accrediting Agency. There’s all kind of alternatives. This guy has no business meddling in the electoral process.

  2. Dick Williams said that?

  3. Mark Elgart is entitled to his ‘opinion’ – but this is a matter of taxation and the will of the people. If Dunwoody can operate a high-functioning, successful school district and not cost the state any more money, then what is the issue?

    A better way to determine whether or not to add a school district would be to set a range for the optimum number of students. Say, you can choose to start an independent city district if you have at least x number of students – a number the state is comfortable will be fiscally smart. Maybe 3000 as a minimum? I don’t know. But when you say something as simple as “Georgia has too many school districts” and lump together districts with 100,000 with districts of 1000, then you are saying something that is disingenuous and misleading.

  4. howdy1942 says:

    I wouldn’t give the Georgia Gang the time of day – their comments are always off the wall and often make little or no sense. There was very little in the SACS report that was not common knowledge in Dekalb. All you had to do was go to meetings of the school board to know that it was dysfunctional. Just look at the test scores, four superintendents in four years, legal expenses greater than all of our neighboring counties combined, an administration that is twice the size of any neighboring school district, an indicted superintendent and an indicted chief operations officer, negative reports on local television and in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, furloughs for local teachers to say nothing of breaking a contract to contribute to the TRA, and all of this with the highest millage rate in Georgia. The Georgia Gang is just blind to reality.

    As for Dr. Elgart, I respectfully disagree. It is clearly obvious that the Dekalb School System has been poorly run and managed for years mainly because it is too big. It has a broad geographical area in which there resides multiple thoughts on how school systems should be run. Those studies cited in previous comments show that smaller is better, that schools ought to be managed within local communities. I don’t know how South Dekalb or Dunwoody would like to manage their local school districts, but I think that a locally managed Tucker School District would be much better and involve the community far more than we have now. I sometimes think that those who presently run the Dekalb County School System would like to keep the DCSS as is because it is difficult for local communities to have a say at all which leaves the current power structure in place.

    Once again, Nancy Jester is right on target. I appreciate her research and miss her greatly at the DCSS board.

  5. “He’s an overpaid fraud.”

    Overpaid, could very well be. Have you ever been to Elgart’s office? It’s enormous – and filled with very, very expensive artwork. Glad to know he supports ‘the arts’… lol. Cha Ching!

  6. Alexis Scott – Can I make Mark Elgart my loser of the week? He’s gone around wreaking havoc on all of the major metro school systems, causing everybody accreditation problems.

    Dick Williams – But, this time he stepped out of bounds.

    Alexis Scott – He stepped out of bounds.

    One could argue that the Governor then also stepped out of bounds.

  7. I find this part of Elgart’s bio very insightful:

    Prior to joining SACS CASI in 1995, Mark Elgart served nine years as a math and science teacher, as well as a school administrator at the middle and high school levels, which included six years as a middle school principal. Mark Elgart is married with two children and resides in Alpharetta, Georgia. Mark Elgart’s children go to private school.

    Yet another person in education in GA who has risen beyond his Peter Principle.

  8. Kim says:

    While I’m actually supportive of the idea of smaller districts being more manageable, some of the examples or studies be shared to stretch the point. For example:

    “A study of small rural districts in New York found that students in these small districts tended to learn the basics at average or above average levels, when compared to students in other districts (Monk & Haller, 1986)”

    So what are the “other” districts? We are left to presume they are the non-rural, larger city districts. Hmm, is it possible there’s more contributing to the relative success of rural New York schools than district size? I think this is very much a debatable point.

    I know, I know. We have Marietta and Decatur to look to as relatively successful, urban, and small districts. I get it. My point is that it doesn’t seem district size is THE most important fact and I’m not willing to accept this point as a foundation to the argument that smaller is by default better.

    While the drum beat gets louder to break down DeKalb County School District (and that is fine btw), let’s not completely delude ourselves about the “magic” of smaller districts, either.

  9. Insider says:

    Lewis Pleads Guilty to Misdemeanor: Will testify for prosecution:

  10. Lewis’ plea is to a garbage charge. Obstructing a police officer? A misdemeanor? The DA never intended to prosecute his buddy. This is disgusting. So only Pope and her “husband” will be tried. The insiders are let off the hook. And they force the concept of accountability on the teachers! Man, I’m pissed.

  11. And catch this: http://www.politifact.com/georgia/statements/2013/oct/16/michael-thurmond/dekalb-superintendent-guilty-grade-inflation-descr/

    Thurmond caught in a blatant misrepresentation…or you could use the “L” word. But I’m trying to be nice.

  12. OGParent says:

    Just adding to Kim’s point above…it’s dangerous to believe ‘smallness’ is the causal factor for better performance. It may be that those “small” districts have something else that is driving their success. Or it may be an offshoot of smallness – that all parties feel more connected, responsible, engaged, demanding, etc. Regardless, for the record, i’m completely in favor of breaking up Dekalb.

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