Collaboration could save small districts big bucks

Tim Hoffine

A Thomas B. Fordham Institute analysis indicates consolidating just a few administrative roles in Ohio school districts with fewer than 1,700 students might save as much as $40 million a year. 

The analysis uses savings that the Rittman Exempted Village School District and the Orrville City School District, in Wayne County, realized when the two districts consolidated their administrative staffs in January 2008.

The Fordham analysis looked at 297 districts with 1,700 or fewer students, 49 percent of Ohio’s 611 districts.

The Rittman and Orrville decision seemed promising two years ago but it has turned out to be a no-brainer. This year, the arrangement has produced a savings of about $270,000 -- $170,000 for Orrville and $100,000 for Rittman, according to Superintendent John Ritchie.

In addition to Ritchie, the districts share an assistant superintendent, treasurer, director of operations, special education director, EMIS coordinator, and a transportation support team. The districts also share the time of a French teacher and special services for emotionally disturbed and multi-handicapped students.

Even if the 297 districts in the Fordham analysis did not combine administratively to the extent of Rittman and Orville, just combining the superintendent and treasurer would save an estimated $25.9 million, assuming a superintendent earns $100,000 annually and a treasurer $75,000.

Ritchie, originally Orrville’s superintendent, proposed the idea as a way to save money for both districts when Rittman’s superintendent retired. Ritchie, 42, is a 1986 graduate of Rittman.

“So far so good; it’s going real well. The efficiencies continue to grow,” Ritchie told the Ohio Education Gadfly Monday. “We’re well into our second year. It’s actually got to the point where people don’t talk about it anymore.”

The two towns are not only in the same county but are only about 10 miles apart so Ritchie can make it between district offices in about 15 minutes. To divide the shared costs, the Rittman-Orrville compact uses the percentage of student population of the two districts. Orville has about 1,750 students and four schools while Rittman serves about 1,100 students and three schools.

Ritchie stressed that the agreement is collaboration, and not a consolidation. The two districts maintain separate school boards, separate budgets, test scores, athletic teams, and clubs. Ritchie alternates football game night, going to Orville one week and Rittman the next.

The deal’s early success has caused lawmakers to notice and the state could promote the idea as an option for increasingly cash-strapped districts. Ritchie spoke before the Ohio Senate education committee yesterday, reiterating that support from school communities is central to making cost-saving collaboration work. “We could expand this model in the right community with the right mindset,” he said.

Ritchie named at least one change the legislature could enact to remove impediments to similar consolidations – make the law more explicit so as to permit districts to share superintendents and other administrators, and not just treasurers.

Some districts might find administrative consolidation more palatable than the recent recommendation by the Greater Ohio Policy Center and Brookings Institution that the number of school districts in the state be trimmed by one-third. The study pointed out that Ohio districts have high administrative costs (ninth highest in the nation) and low elementary and secondary education spending (47th).

Support for local control remains strong in Ohio and any move to trim districts, no matter how logical in the view of Columbus, will be fought. Forging economies of scale among districts, such as the one pioneered by Orrville and Rittman, offers a logical alternative. Also promising are efforts by districts like Springboro to save money by outsourcing services to county Educational Service Centers. As Warren County ESC Associate Superintendent Tom Isaacs told the Dayton Daily News, “That’s the nature of our business model. We have to be able to do it for less than they can do it themselves or they will do it themselves.”

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