Rising costs put schools consolidation idea to the test

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

Delaware, in contrast, has 137,000 students and 19 separate school districts, plus 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.

Over the years, many Delawareans have wondered if that makes for an efficient use of taxpayer dollars. With the cost of education in the state rising, lawmakers in July created a task force to examine consolidation.

Merging districts could range from trimming the 19 established locales to just one per county or simply combining a few, such as Seaford and Laurel, and while consolidation may seem relatively simple, there are many factors to be considered.

A 2002 report by the Department of Education, ordered by the General Assembly, concludes “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.

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 ‘leveling-up’ 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 in districts are merged, officials said.

An example put together by this year’s task force combines Appoquinimink and Colonial, Caesar Rodney and Lake Forest, and Seaford and Woodbridge. Such a merge would save about $1.11 million — practically a rounding error in a $4.1 billion budget.

Thursday, the task force’s subcommittee focusing on funding provided an overview of the finances surrounding education, raising many questions. Few answers were provided, but with the group not set to deliver a report to the General Assembly and Gov. John Carney until the end of January, members still have a few months to craft recommendations.

Much of the discussion during the meeting centered on funding for low-income students, English language learners and individuals in special education programs.

Total student enrollment has increased by about 10,000 since 2009, with about half of that growth coming from special-education students, who are more expensive to educate.

“We may be the only business that I can think of that doesn’t celebrate growth in market share,” Department of Education Associate Secretary David Blowman said.

According to Mr. Blowman, the jump is partly driven by families moving to Delaware for its quality special education programs, making the state “a victim of (its) relative regional success in this market.”

The percentage of Delaware students in special education programs, which was between 12 and 12.5 percent every year from 2004 to 2011, has risen to 14.9 percent this year. More special education students mean higher costs because districts have to bring in more teachers and specialists, but students with disabilities and learning differences do bring extra funding to their districts.

That’s not the case with some other high-need pupils.

Should districts be merged, increased numbers of English language learners and low-income students might pose problems for some parts of the state, such as western Sussex, which may not have the tax base to cover the higher costs.

For illustration, officials noted a 1-cent increase in local property taxes would generate about $500,000 for northern New Castle County’s Red Clay but only around $11,000 for Laurel.

Compounding matters is the funding formula. Delaware, Mr. Blowman said, is one of only four states that does not offer special funding for students who come from impoverished areas or do not speak English as a primary language.

About 51,300 students — 37.4 percent of the student body — live in poverty, with the effect being most pronounced in Wilmington, although Bear and Dover also have significant populations. The 9,900 English language learners are, predictably, most concentrated in Wilmington. Georgetown also has a large number of non-native English speakers.

Approximately half the state’s English language learners — who collectively speak dozens of languages other than English — are defined as low-income.

Updating county property reassessments for the first time in decades could provide additional revenue for districts, but there’s a catch: Politics.

Lawmakers have been hesitant to push for reassessment before because the change would mean higher taxes for many of their constituents, and so the status quo remains.

“There’s no magic new policy bullet here,” Mr. Blowman said.

Nine more meetings of the task force and its subcommittees are scheduled through the middle of December.

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