Timing is right in Ohio for smart district consolidation

Eric Ulas

Spurred by a new report and the looming state financial crisis, the time may be right for school district consolidation for Ohio.?? According to the recent report by the Brookings Institute and The Greater Ohio Policy Center, the Buckeye State drastically needs to scale down its overabundance of local school districts.

Consider the numbers:

??? Ohio has 611 school districts, almost half of which (49 percent) serve fewer than 1,700 students each.

??? Ohio ranks 47th in the U.S. in actual K-12 dollars going into classroom instruction.

??? Ohio ranks 9th in spending on administrative overhead.

??? Ohio's administrative overhead costs are 49 percent above the national average.

Faced with such staggering figures, both Governor Ted Strickland and his Republican challenger John Kasich gave measured statements of approval to the notion of consolidation in a recent article in the Akron Beacon Journal. Said Strickland:

''I think some of the administrative functions perhaps could be consolidated in a way that would be a cost saving, while at the same time allow the individual schools to maintain their colors, their mascots, their individuality,''

In the same article, Kasich called consolidation of services ''a very good starting point.''

Their cautioned responses reflect how thorny the idea of consolidation is in the local mindset. The Beacon Journal article went so far as to refer to school district consolidation as Ohio's ???third rail' of politics. Community identities are deeply rooted in local school districts here in Ohio, and, to be successful, any attempt to merge districts would have to be done in a way that does not leave communities feeling as though they've been swallowed whole by another.

If done correctly, consolidation can prove rewarding. Maine has consolidated 75 of 290 districts, resulting in a savings of $36 million a year. New York State is examining consolidation and projects savings of $189 million a year with small-district consolidation.

There is even a promising precedent here in Ohio ??? last year the Rittman and Orrville school districts, which serve around 2,800 students, decided to share one superintendent and treasurer, resulting in significant savings for both districts.

Given Ohio's current economic state, declining population, and shrinking tax base, such consolidation and collaboration is not only wise, but likely necessary.

--Eric Ulas

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