By Kathryn Palmer
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — Facing massive cuts to the state’s K-12 schools budget, one lawmaker has proposed a bill to study the cost-saving benefits of consolidating Wyoming’s 48 school districts into 24.
“We, as a Legislature, fully understand that we have to rein in costs for education. Rather than making cuts to teacher salaries, personnel or closing down schools, I thought this was a better avenue to pursue,” said Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, who is sponsoring House Bill 77.
“I spent two years chairing the Revenue Committee trying to raise some money and revenue sources, and that was a no-go,” he said. “Knowing that we are going to have to significantly cut this budget, I felt that a lot of legislators and citizens think that perhaps cutting administration costs is better than cutting teacher salaries.”
But critics of district consolidation, which has long been a popular cost-saving proposal in states across the country, argue that it won’t save enough money to offset potential unintended consequences.
If it becomes law, Zwonitzer’s bill would create a planning committee, composed of one representative from each K-12 district to produce a report on the logistics of district consolidation. Former and current district employees, such as district superintendents, would not be permitted to be on the committee because “that negates the purposes of the bill,” said Zwonitzer, who said he envisions having school board members, who are typically unpaid, serve on the committee.
The committee would then submit a consolidation plan to a legislative committee and the State Board of Education by Sept. 1, 2022, and it would go into effect July 1, 2023. If for some reason the committee did not submit a plan, the bill in its current form would assign one school district to each Wyoming’s 23 counties and another for the Wind River Reservation, which would also be implemented on July 1, 2023.
“So there’s a carrot and a stick,” said Zwonitzer, who added that in addition to saving on administrative costs, he believes consolidation would “spread out” money spent on transportation and special education services, which the state reimburses districts for at 100%.
“Somewhere like Fremont County, with eight school districts, it just doesn’t make sense that you have eight superintendents and bus routes and administrative costs. I think there are some efficiencies that could be gathered,” said Zwonitzer, who added that even if the savings are only around $10 million per year, it would be better than nothing. “I’m just trying to find ways to reduce costs without impacting learning.”
According to Mustafa Karakaplan, a clinical assistant professor of finance at the University of South Carolina who’s spent years researching the economics of district consolidation, merging district boundaries often makes keeping cuts away from the classroom easier said than done.
“It’s pretty straightforward thinking. If you have two districts and you consolidate them into a single district, there will be cost savings. Perhaps instead of two administrators, you hire one,” Karakaplan said. “The problem with that is that when you decrease the number of districts, you’re also decreasing the level of competition among districts.”
A wide body of research on the subject, Karakaplan said, shows that competition – which consolidation decreases – helps to improve both student achievement, as well as spending behaviors of district administrators.
“If there’s a school district next to you that’s being very efficient with how they use their resources, you, as a principal, would also try to be more careful about how you use those resources,” said Karakaplan, who co-authored a 2015 peer-reviewed study on the economic effects of consolidation on education markets. “If there isn’t a district you’re being compared to, you would be more wasteful with how you spend your resources. … There is a scale-efficiency tradeoff. As a result, there isn’t a guarantee of saving money from consolidation.”
Questions about the cost savings of consolidation have also arisen among some of Wyoming’s education leaders.
Brian Farmer, executive director of the Wyoming School Boards Association and former chair of the Laramie County School District 1 Board of Trustees, said his organization opposes the legislation in part because “there’s very little money to be saved from consolidation.”
According to the Legislative Service Office, school district consolidation would result in around $8.1 million in savings – which is about 0.7% of the state’s school budget, the Sheridan Press reported.
“Looking at the relatively modest cost impact versus the impact to locality is where we philosophically differ from this arrangement,” said Farmer, who added that WSBA members value the idea of local control. “You have to consider the uniqueness of different communities – Laramie County is the perfect example. The eastern side of the county is more rural, with an agrarian economy and focus on a lifestyle that is quite different from Cheyenne, which predominates Laramie County School District 1.”
Having two separate districts in Laramie County, for instance, “allows districts to adapt their educational program to meet the values of their community,” Farmer said, noting that when Wyoming consolidated its more than 100 districts into 48 back in the early 1970s, several schools did close during a period some still refer to as “the bloody battles of consolidation.”
“Oftentimes, those schools are the center of the community. People might say, ‘Oh, you can keep your schools, we just want to consolidate the district or business operations,’ but Wyoming history shows that we do see eventually the closing of schools,” Farmer said. “With the leaving of schools, we do see a lot of Wyoming communities severely impacted.”
Jon Abrams, superintendent of Laramie County School District 2, which has just over 1,000 students enrolled from the communities of Burns, Pine Bluffs, Hillsdale, Carpenter and Albin, said he’s appreciative of the hard job the Legislature has to balance the budget, but that he “hopes they’ll take into consideration that each district is unique and different, with unique and different needs.”
Aside from preserving rural representation, Abrams is also curious about how consolidating LCSD1 and 2 into one district might influence operating costs.
“I would think that if you combine the districts, you would have one salary schedule, not two. And LCSD1 pays more than we do,” Abrams said. “There’s a feeling there’s some money to be saved. I hope they’ll be purposeful in figuring out just how much money would be saved and decide if they’re really getting bang for their buck.”
Forty miles west in LCSD1 in Cheyenne, Boyd Brown serves as superintendent of Wyoming largest school district, but he’s still concerned about what consolidation could do to some of the state’s smaller districts.
“I would hope it does not shut down schools in some of our extremely small areas out there across the state, because having a school in your town, especially our very small towns, does help keep those towns going,” Brown said, noting that from what he understands, cutting administrators wouldn’t do much to close the $300 million revenue gap facing schools in Wyoming.
“I think to garner the savings the Legislature is looking at, we’d have to shut down some schools and bus kids.”
It’s unclear if House Bill 77 will be heard during next week’s partly virtual eight-day legislative session or the in-person part of the session, which is tentatively scheduled to begin March.