Friday, February 13, 2009

Rendell's School Consolidation Plan

(News-Herald, Feb. 12) Last week, Governor Rendell declared his intention to make 400 school districts vanish. Now, I’ve said that Venangoland needs four school districts like an octopus needs extra arms. But the governor’s announcement does not have me clicking my heels.
First, as seems to be typical of Smilin’ Ed’s proposals, there’s no hint of details about how this might actually work (see also: gambling money tax relief and I-80 toll). So this plan could be a real winner or a massive disaster.
The stated consolidation aim is to reduce administrative costs, but I have my doubts. Imagine four lemonade stands, each with one manager. I consolidate them to save money on managers—keep one, fire three. Only now with no manager on the sites, I hire a manager for each branch. And to get the benefit of buying lemons bulk, I need a procurement manager. And a secretary for the top dog, who now has to interface with his command structure. By consolidating badly, I go from four lemonade administrators to seven. Savings? Not so much.
In the ed biz, it’s potentially worse than that. Sometimes when a district administrator can’t do his job, he just hires assistants and consultants to do it for him. Savings? Even fewer.
Another key factor in consolidations is that they are usually coordinated by the people that we are supposedly going to winnow. Combine school districts, lemonade stands, or even, say, hospitals, and all the high-priced administrators stick around with new titles. When it’s time to cut payroll, it’s the worker bees that are shown the hive exit. Savings? Small. Loss of services provided to customers? Larger.
Different districts could feel different impacts. According to state figures, Cranberry Schools are 377 out of 500 districts in size, but 50 out of 500 in Administrative Cost Per Pupil (Greater Nanticoke SD is #1, with less ACPP than anyone else in the state). Franklin is 256 for size, 365 for ACPP. Oil City is 239 for size, 333 for ACPP. Titusville is 253 in size, but a whopping 404 for ACPP. Valley Grove is a teeny 428th in size, but ranks 243 in ACPP.
The most consolidated school district hereabouts? County-sized Forest SD comes in at 492nd place in low administrative costs per pupil.
The wild card in many districts is transportation, but since that’s a rural issue, I don’t expect any of the suited dopes in Harrisburg to get it. In some cases, such as Franklin/Valley Grove and Cranberry/Oil City, transportation is part of what makes a merger sensible. But if four out of every five school districts are going to be merged away, some serious transportation problems are going to emerge. All those massive administrative savings are going to be spent on buses (plus therapy for the students who will ride them for four hours every day).
School sports will become prohibitively expensive, given the amount of travel needed to get to the next nearest high schools. But Philadelphia schools will be happy to wrestle for money with 99 other districts instead of 499.
The biggest problem with the governor’s proposal, beyond its use of a broadsword solution for a scalpel problem, is that it puts the broadsword in the wrong hands. The best people to handle school consolidation in Venango County are not Harrisbugian suited dopes who couldn’t find Venango County if they were hungry dogs and we were a pile of sausage.
Smilin’ Ed offers other concerns. He figures that the 80% of PA districts that have fewer than 5000 students raise “questions about the diversity of courses offered to students.” I wish the state were this concerned about educational diversity when they’re suggesting we stop teaching everything except the material on the PSSA tests.
Consolidation is a good idea. We should do some. But a top-down mandate slapped together out of arbitrary ill-considered numbers backed up by no real plan is not my idea of how to do it. Want to save some administrative costs? Cut the PA Department of Education budget by 90%.
Not that what I think matters—nor anyone else, either. This plan has one more thing in common with some of Smilin’ Ed’s brainstorms. The state legislature will have a chance to vote on it. And if they vote it down, the State Board of Education is directed to go ahead and do it anyway.
Still, some have embraced it. In fact, my sister-in-law likes it so well that she suggests merging some states. Think of the money we could save by getting rid of a few governors.

1 comment:

Dittman said...

I'm all for consolidation of the districts (and for a much smaller number of State Representatives...), but I am not surprised that judging from the local letters to the editor, many of our area's leading complainers are confusing it with school consolidation (which I am also for, and heck, I'm even for more consolidation of the SSHE system, but that's another rant)...

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