Against Tiny School Districts

One of Governor Andrew Cuomo's contentious budget cutting ideas is to consolidate very small school districts. I'm generally a tax-and-spend liberal, but this is a good idea, especially in relatively densely-populated parts of the state. I was reminded why today by the New York Times, which reported on a controversy engulfing the tiny Westchester village of Katonah, NY, not far from where I grew up. Katonah's school board would like to hire a superintendent named Paul Kreutzer, who happens to be the only superintendent in Wisconsin to have publicly supported Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to ban teacher collective bargaining. 

Unsurprisingly, hundreds of Katonah teachers, parents, and students are loudly protesting Kreutzer's appointment. 

But what really caught my eye was that if he does get the job, the 39-year old Kreutzer is set to earn $245,000 annually to oversee a district of just six schools and 3,800 students. Ninety-three percent of these kids are white, and just 1 percent are non-native English speakers. Approximately 0 percent of Katonah public school children participate in the federal free-and-reduced-price lunch program. 

The nearby Bedford Central School District, which encompasses the more diverse town of Mt. Kisco, has seven schools and just under 5,000 students. There, 20 percent of students are Hispanic, 5 percent are black, and 5 percent are Asian. Fourteen percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and 7 percent are currently learning English. The superintendent in Bedford earns a lot of money, too, though less than the one in Katonah–about $225,000 plus benefits, according to the most recent data I could find. But he also has a somewhat more difficult job, serving a larger and more diverse population.

It would be good public policy to consolidate these two school districts, which are geographically contiguous with one another. Not only would it save money on administrative costs, but it would allow more children to enjoy the benefits of attending racially and socioeconomically integrated schools. 

Currently, New York State has some of the most regressive school districting in the country. Due to a system that has changed very little since the early 19th century, there are 697 school districts in New York. 

In Florida, the state closest to New York in terms of population, there are just 74 school districts.

Politically, consolidating school districts is very controversial, even though larger school systems are often able to offer more course options and other perks. In large part, this is because consolidation is a full frontal attack on white privilege and class privilege. Currently, the ability to pay Katonah property prices and taxes earns a family the right to prevent their children from attending school with the children of Mt. Kisco's Guatemalan day-laborers. Some people move to Katonah instead of to Mt. Kisco for exactly that reason.

To be sure, neighborhood school zoning can lead to de facto segregated schools even within districts that encompass entire counties. But there are many good examples of progressive large school distrcits. Montogomery County, MD has made great strides in educating both affluent and low-income children in part because of the community's and administration's conviction that this should be a shared responsibility. 

New York  can do way better.

13 thoughts on “Against Tiny School Districts

  1. amy

    interesting stuff, dana. and as a parent in the klsd i i tend to agree with you – not only am i in the minority however but people probably think i’m crazy. it’s hard to mention the salary thing without mentioning the pittance our teachers are receiving and the current battle over tenure vs. no-tenure. but i guess one could go on forever over the current disaster that is education in nys. it does seem to be an overstatement to call the district tiny though – just a note.

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  2. Chris_H

    This is WONDERFUL. Liberals should be pushing for fewer local governments … like, always. It’s easily framed as a “less government” issue for conservatives, and helps re-distribute tax wealth regionally to make services more equitable.

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  3. janet moore

    It seems surprising to me that Katonah’s school board could be so out of touch with reality that they choose someone the teachers, parents, and students of Katonah are so against. Who is the school board representing? Not to mention the services $245,000 could bring to a school if they didn’t have to pay a superintendent.

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  4. KC

    Illinois is even worse – 869 school districts.

    link to news.yahoo.com

    I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and the Jefferson County Public Schools were managed by one Superintendent, who oversaw ~20 high schools plus all the elementary and middle schools that fed into them.

    I’m all for local control, but in an era of tight budgets, administrative overhead should be the first to go — so we can preserve teachers’ jobs. We don’t need 869 superintendents in Illinois, or 697 in NY.

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  5. Alexi

    Why not break the larger district into several smaller districts? Larger districts and schools have a strong inverse relationship with student performance. Dropout rates also increase linearly with school size.

    District consolidation is arguably the most damaging trend in American education, and you’re actively endorsing it despite evidence that it hurts student performance. You never even address the effect of district size on student performance.

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  6. richard w bray

    I’m a big fan of your work, but I completely disagree. Watching LAUSD waste a half a billion dollars on a single high school should convince anyone that no school district should have a multi-billion dollar budget.

    More democracy and more localism is what we need for our schools.

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  7. Satchro

    I am a teacher in Troy NY where the student population is 3,990 with 6 elementary schools, 1 middle school and 1 high school. The superinyendent makes 250,000 and the school board is predominantly represented by the 2 richest, whitest schools. The district is losing its population so they formed a committee to oversee expenditures over the next 5 years and which school would be costing the most. On top of that they wanted to take into account the displacement of the fewest amount of kids. After the commitee reported that the whitest schools were costing the most money (due to a variety of reasons) AND they were the 2 smallest schools (least displacement of kids is a positive)it seemed the decision was a foregone conclusion. We were wrong, they closed the most populated school that was going to cost the least amount of money over 5 years (2.3 million vs. 6.7 million) Why? You tell me. To this day they will not give reasons (no lie) and continue with plans for closure. But, the schools of their white affluent kids were saved.

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  8. TW

    Yes! I grew up in Florida, in a school district serving hundreds of thousands. I went to an awesome academic magnet school that represented the district (30% black). Now I live in upstate NY where the same population and land area are served by dozens of districts. So I did what I felt forced to do: I bought a house just across the line separating failing urban schools from overly white schools that actually send kids to college. But I’d much rather put my kids in the countywide melting pot district I grew up in in Fla.

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  9. L2P

    “I’m a big fan of your work, but I completely disagree. Watching LAUSD waste a half a billion dollars on a single high school should convince anyone that no school district should have a multi-billion dollar budget.”

    I think Dana’s point would be there’s a sweet spot between LAUSD’s irrationally large size, and a school district who’s entire student body would fit in one of LAUSD’s high schools. LAUSD doesn’t function (really, at all), but a bunch of it’s constituents worry that if it’s broken up they’ll be left in a worse-off, segregated district – hard to tell them they’re wrong. So we’re stuck with it, terrible as it is. Sad, b/c it ends up being a poster child for which traditional public schools have to suck.

    But small districts are terrible, too. In Northern California, a bunch of school districts can barely cover costs because the student population is too low to cover admin costs. They’re facing bankruptcy.

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  10. Henry

    I’m a liberal, on board with trying to redistribute resources to help disadvantaged schools, but I think merging districts is very much the wrong way to go.

    I went to a small suburban high school. Our district had one HS only, with about a thousand students total. I would never want to have gone to a larger school, and would never want any future children to go to a larger one. Having a small school where people get to know each other, where children are not separated from friends and are able to exist in a consistent social environment, I think this made me a much happier and better student.

    If we want to talk about redistribution, let’s talk about redistributing tax revenues. I think that’s entirely fair. I would be happy sending my children to schools with larger numbers of minority students, ESL students, students receiving free lunches, etc. I just want the school to be small. I met people in college from Long Island who went to 4000 student high schools; that sounds horrifying to me.

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  11. Chris_H

    Henry, there’s a bunch of local gov types who — even with regional tax redistribution (like MN has in its fiscal disparities act) — think there are *still* a whole lot of badness that comes from districts being drawn up locally. In school districts, there’s a whole lot of gerrymandering that goes on, and it’s pretty terrible.

    More broadly though, having small areas where services are determined by property values creates an un-ending cycle where aging properties creates less revenue at the same time that there’s more need for services. The inter-regional competition between cities is a huge waste of time and $$ (tax incentives to businesses, etc) when a region should be functioning as a unit. That’s a little off-subject from school districts, but the same sort of boundary-drawing around property wealth still goes on. Consolidating local governments — including school districts — and giving more power to state govs (or regional governments) is good stuff.

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  12. John

    Of course NYC provides the in-state counter-example, but that’s ridiculously large district.

    Next-door NJ is even worse with nearly 600 districts and only 10 million people (that is, not much bigger than NYC). Some districts exist solely to make sure that there students attend schools in neighboring districts, that is, they have NO schools.

    Reply

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