Does Delaware need 19 school districts?

 

North Dover Elementary School students head to school buses. Some taxpayers and officials believe the state’s 19 school districts should be consolidated into a fewer number to save money and increase efficiency. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Philadelphia has 199,000 public school students and just one school district.

Montgomery County, Maryland, has one countywide district, covering 156,000 students.

Delaware?

About 137,000 students — and 19 separate school districts, a figure that doesn’t include 25 charter schools around the state.

The state’s 19 districts, three of which are vocational range in size from 16,000 students in Red Clay to 1,200 in Polytech.

Not surprisingly, New Castle County, with its large population, has more districts than Kent. But it is Sussex County, with eight, that has the most. That’s despite Sussex having just 40 percent of the population of New Castle, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The majority of those eight districts are lightly populated. In fact, five of the six smallest districts in the state by population are in Sussex.

Given the seemingly disproportionate number of districts, some Delaware taxpayers have wondered over the years if consolidation would be wise. On occasion, state officials have formally proposed merging districts to save money.

With the state government facing a $350 million gap between projected revenues and expenditures, consolidation has been discussed, albeit briefly, by budget-writing officials this year.

The Joint Finance Committee touched on it earlier this month but not in detail. Gov. John Carney’s proposed budget, set to be released at the end of March, may include recommendations for sharing services even if it does not recommend the wholescale merging of districts.

“I think we’ll take a look at it, particularly the back-office stuff. It’s hard to figure out how you would do it in a Big Bang kind of way, all at once,” Gov. Carney said.

Four districts in northern New Castle County which were once a single district currently share IT services, something Gov. Carney thinks could be done on a larger scale to save money.

The Department of Education, through a spokeswoman, declined to make Secretary Susan Bunting available for an interview.

“Legislators asked DOE to conduct some research on this subject and provide them with information. It would be premature for Sec. Bunting to talk … on this until that work is complete,” the department’s Alison May wrote in an email.

Hurdles

But, consolidation may not be as simple as it seems.

A 2002 report by the Department of Education on the order of the General Assembly, concluded “there is not a compelling case to consolidate existing districts into county-wide districts in Kent and Sussex counties to achieve cost savings. Surprisingly, Delaware school districts are on average significantly larger than other districts throughout the nation (Appendix B). While the mean 2000-2001 school district size in Delaware was 5,898 the national average was only 3,210.”

A state report from 2008 spoke in favor of sharing some services but did not recommend merging individual districts.

While one of the reasons often given for merging districts is cost savings, the actual savings may disappoint proponents of consolidation.

According to the 2002 publication, creating county-wide districts in Kent and Sussex would create an annual cost of $7.2 million.

“While many administrative positions would be eliminated (such as 22 Superintendent and Administrative Assistant positions) these reductions would be significantly offset by increases in the number of other administrative positions (such as 18 Assistant Superintendent and Director positions),” it states. “The estimated net cost reduction derived as a result of fewer unit generated positions is $1,375,000.

“This cost reduction, however, would be overridden by the cost of ‘levelingup’ salaries in each district to that of the highest paid district in each county. While one could argue that the county-wide district salary scales could be established at rates lower than that of the highest paid existing district, it is believed that such an implementation strategy would ultimately prove unsuccessful.”

Even without simplifying districts down to one per county, leveling-up would still be needed to prevent educators with identical duties from being paid different salaries, officials said.

There are practical problems to consider, as well.

While it may seem unnecessary to have separate school districts for Seaford, Laurel and Woodbridge, with about 8,200 students combined (500 more than Caesar Rodney), geography poses a problem.

Because of Sussex’s relatively low population density, especially in the southwest, slashing the number of districts could create especially long drives or bus rides to school for some students, some say.

Many Delawareans support local educational control and have been critical of recent increases in centralization with the Department of Education. Moving toward a smaller number of larger districts could be construed as stepping further away from local oversight, opponents of consolidation have claimed.

Another sticking point is the disruption of school pride and athletic rivalries. Dover and Caesar Rodney high schools, for instance, are long-time foes on the field, the court and the track and merging the Capital and Caesar Rodney districts would surely engender some controversy from alumni and fans.

Background

The state has a long history with consolidation.

In 1953, Delaware had around 120 different districts, with tiny towns like Hartly and Magnolia being able to brag about having their own.

Consolidation occurred over the next 20 years, and by 1973, Delaware’s legion of districts was down to 26.

More units were merged in the ensuing years, when a federal court ordered the state to reorder its districts in northern New Castle to speed along racial desegregation.

However, the move caused some problems, including a six-week strike. Protesting differences in pay as a result of the merger, teachers went on strike until salaries were leveled up.

In 1981, the New Castle County district was split into four: Red Clay, Brandywine, Christina and Colonial.

One hundred miles south of Wilmington, the state’s second smallest district also has an interesting history. Located in the southwestern corner of Delaware, Delmar has only 1,300 Delaware students.

However, because the town of Delmar stretches across the state’s southern border into Maryland, the district has a partnership with Maryland.

For the start of their school careers, students attend Delmar Elementary School in Maryland, which is overseen by the Wicomico County Board of Education.

Beginning in fifth grade, students go to school in Delaware under the jurisdiction of the Delmar Board of Education.

Legislation to merge districts has been introduced over the years but generally found little support.

In 2015 and 2016, the General Assembly took some steps toward changing boundaries in Wilmington.

Currently, the city is served by four districts, and advocates believe reducing that number would help improve the education system for many students living in the city.

Opinions

Frederika Jenner, president of the Delaware State Education Association — the teachers’ union — said the DSEA has no opinion on consolidation at this point since no formal proposal has been created.

She said teachers are generally not worried about losing their jobs, as consolidation would result in a reshuffling rather than a change in the number of students.

Ms. Jenner said the union would hope to be involved in discussions if they ever take place.

Sen. Harris McDowell, a Wilmington Democrat who co-chairs the Joint Finance Committee, said he has talked with Gov. Carney about consolidation.

While Sen. McDowell believes merging districts needs to be examined because of the cost burden the state bears for education, he noted any change could not take place in a matter of months.

“It’s more than a tinkering,” he said.

Sen. Dave Sokola, a Newark Democrat and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said there are pros and cons to reducing the number of districts.

While he is against creating countywide districts — something Maryland has — he said consolidation could help save money in the long run and lead to the education system running more efficiently.

“I think there are reasons why districts, especially downstate, should want to consolidate,” he said.

House Minority Leader Danny Short, a Seaford Republican, took a similar view.

He said if consolidation is the goal, lawmakers should “try to develop it from local district up versus us being dictatorial.”

Smyrna School District Superintendent Deborah Wicks, who is retiring June 30, is not in favor of a large-scale change.

Ms. Wicks cited the 2002 analysis, which predicted having countywide districts in Kent and Sussex would cost an extra $7.2 million.

She also said school districts are already using the same financial system for purchase orders and payments, the same pupil accounting system for student records, the same state-wide network infrastructure and centralized services for cash management, bond sales and tax deferment.

“All full-time employees are members of the state health insurance program and other functions such as purchasing and professional development,” she said. “The perceived efficiency isn’t there because school districts are already cooperating well.”

In a more general sense, Ms. Wicks believes that local control is important to the way that state school districts operate.

“In Kent County, particularly, we are very much community-oriented — Caesar Rodney, Capital, Lake Forest and Milford are all the same way,” she said.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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