Every time there’s a budget shortfall, state legislators talk about consolidating Oklahoma’s 516 school districts as a way to save money.
This year, legislators filed eight different school consolidation bills. They each had their own unique way to go about it, but overall the goal was to cut school administration costs.
Oklahoma does have an abnormally high number of school districts compared to other states with similar student populations, but Dr. Gary Ritter, an education policy researcher at the University of Arkansas, said that doesn't necessarily mean we're spending more money.
"You can theoretically, and logically, infer that here’s why I might see cost savings [by consolidating districts], but you couldn’t go back in to the research, see that there were indeed consolidations that occurred, and say, ‘oh look, things cost less’".
Ritter is not an expert on Oklahoma, but he has been studying school consolidation in Arkansas for 10 years, and he says there is no evidence of saved money.
Senator John Ford, who is the chair of the Senate Education Committee, doesn't think consolidation would save money either.
"We don’t have a whole host of high paid jobs that would go away if we would merge these districts."
Ford said consolidating districts won't make administrators disappear. Instead, they'll just slide in to other administrative roles—like principal or assistant superintendent.
"I truly believe we will not save a lot of money."
Still, state officials point to other states with similar student populations, but far fewer districts. They say if they can do it, we can do it. Take Louisiana for example: they have 70 school districts—compared to Oklahoma’s 516—but about the same number of kids.
According to 2014 U.S. Census data both states spent about the same on superintendent administration. But Louisiana spent $100 million more on principals and school level administration. All told, Louisiana spends more on administration despite having a fraction of the number of districts. The same is true for other states like South Carolina and Alabama.
But state officials also argue that superintendents of small districts make too much money.
According to 2013 data, superintendents of the state's 40 smallest school districts make anywhere from $12,000 to $107,000 a year.
Alton Rawlins is the Superintendent of Friend School, a one-building school district of about 270 students in Chickasha. He makes about $90,000 a year, but says he wears many hats.
"I’m the superintendent and the principal. I'm the federal programs director. I'm the building and operations director. I even clean the toilets occasionally."
He argues that he actually saves the state money by doing all those jobs. He also says he's been working in education for 40 years, and feels that he's earned it.
Outside of the financial debate, Rawlins thinks small schools provide better learning environments, and thinks if they consolidated with other schools, they'd be taking opportunities away from students.
Parents of many small school districts strongly agree, and rallied at the state capitol when consolidation bills were recently heard. They said they chose the community they now live in because of the small school, and chanted and cheered in the Capitol rotunda when the consolidation measures failed.
Due to the immense push from parents and small school supporters, Senator Ford said he won’t hear any more of the consolidation bills that are on the table this legislative session. But he also says that doesn't mean the discussion is over.