Delaware school district reduction requires a preliminary step

Any district reduction study must first consider a bold systemic change to the way the current, bureaucratic education system operates with school boards and district hierarchies.

If operational decision-making authority is not shifted to the local buildings, we will end up with the same erroneous conclusions of the 2002 study conducted by the Delaware Secretary of Education in response to House Resolution 54.

Considering only Kent and Sussex counties, that study concluded that if those counties had only one school district each it would cost the state an additional $7.2 million dollars! This result was caused by including teacher leveled-up pay scales but not reductions in district personnel expenses nor reductions in district office and facility operating expenses along with possible opportunities to rent or sell district buildings.

Why? Because without changing the existing bloated, bureaucratic system and using regular state funding formulas, the new, larger districts simply rehired just about everyone (except for superintendents). In some cases they actually added personnel. Some current elected officials still cite that study to support their position of not reducing the number of school districts.

Ron Russo

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The concept of transferring operational decision-making authority from school boards and district bureaucracies to the individual school buildings is not new. It originated and was piloted in Delaware in 1995 with the support of Governor Carper, the Department of Public Instruction (now the Department of Education), and the business community (led by the DuPont Company).

This education reform effort was done (listen up Governor Carney) to improve the state’s economy. The Education Department’s draft of regulations stated, “Reliance on bureaucratic decisions would be a thing of the past.” “Parents and teachers are less restricted by decisions made at a district or state level.” “… try new approaches to learning without bureaucratic restrictions.” “… empower local communities further with additional decision-making authority.”

The original Memorandum of Understanding offered to Delaware’s lowest performing schools also reflected the bold systemic change. Under the MOU the Priority Schools would have authority over employment decisions, budget, curriculum, instructional practices, school calendar, scheduling, etc. and they would have autonomy from any district requirements not mandated by state or federal law.

If these local control changes were thought to improve the performance of the state’s lowest performing schools, why wouldn’t they be given to all public schools? This should also provide comfort to parents who fear that they would have to deal with officials in a much larger, possibly impersonal district.

With district reductions and the shifting of authority to the local schools, parents would have better access to education decision makers. In fact, they would be at their children’s schools every day.

The move to reduce the number of school districts is not a criticism of current district personnel. It is, however, a condemnation of the existing, antiquated, bloated bureaucratic school system. At one time transportation was heavily dependent on horses.

With the invention of the internal combustion engine, horses weren’t vilified but they were replaced by more efficient and productive means of transportation. In education, some folks insist on providing more hay and oats and continue to deal with the inevitable muck that follows.

Einstein once commented on doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Well, it’s time to break out of the barn and move on to greener pastures. Let’s shift the operational authority to the individual schools. This will increase local control and since, “one size doesn’t fit all’, it will customize education and not standardize it. Then we can talk about five or, maybe, three school districts for the state.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Ron Russo is a Senior Fellow with the Caesar Rodney Institute, founding president of the Charter School of Wilmington and former principal of St. Mark’s High School.

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