Education Spending Controls: No Single Answer

There wasn’t much happening in the world of public education today so I figured I’d take this opportunity to weigh in on a topic many in Delaware have already been talking about in the last couple of weeks: grizzly bears in schools.


School district consolidation.

Delaware legislators have talked about it.
Delaware Online’s talked about it.
Exceptional Delaware’s talked about it.
Delaware Liberal’s talked about it.
Kilroy’s talked about it.
Blue Delaware talked about it.
Everyone’s talked about it at some point.
Blue Delaware’s going to talk about it again.

Let’s start with something simple. Is it a good idea? No. It’s not. Thanks for reading!

But seriously. By itself, district consolidation is not a good idea; not for cost savings, not for efficiency, not for efficacy. It just doesn’t stand to reason that simply because you smoosh 2 or 3 districts together and wipe out a bunch of staff you magically save money. You still have the same number of students to educate and support, same number of educators,

“But you’ll have 1 Superintendent salary instead of 3!” True. But, does the work the other two superintendents were doing prior to consolidation suddenly disappear when you combine districts? Nope. Can you just dump those workloads by the wayside and pretend they don’t exist? Sure, but you’d have a terribly run school district.

So maybe now instead of 3 Superintendents and 1 Deputy Superintendent each, you have 1 Superintendent, 1 Deputy, and 5 Assistant Superintendents. Or 1 Super, 6 Assistants, or any of the other numerous combinations of senior district administration personnel alignment. People LOVE to complain about bloated overpaid district administrators. Ask them which positions in district administration should be axed though and they’re like the Road Runner taking off in the Looney Tunes cartoons, leaving just a silhouette of dust left behind. Same thing when you ask what they think is a “fair” salary for a Superintendent of Schools.

I’m not saying that there’s no room for improvement in how districts are run, or how they’re aligned. Far from it. I’m saying what you expect to “gain” in cost savings by just eliminating staff in a district consolidation is quickly lost by nuking both efficiency and efficacy and you don’t have to launch a public education think-tank to figure out how it happens. Take this thought experiment: Let’s merge Seaford, Woodbridge, Delmar, and Indian River school districts in Sussex County. Each District currently has a Director of Secondary Education (or equivalent). Can you fire 3 of the 4 Directors, and saddle the lone survivor with all the Secondary Education responsibilities for the now much larger district? You sure can. Efficiency! 1 district, 1 Secondary Ed Director! Are you going to have a stellar well-run Secondary Ed program in that district? You sure aren’t. No efficacy!

The work doesn’t disappear because you fire people. Someone else has to pick up the newly created slack and unless you give that someone help, they’re going to quickly be overwhelmed and drown. You know that feeling. Your colleague quits and no replacement is hired because: budget. Your former colleague’s work begins to pile up. What does your boss do? You know what they do. They give the work to you. Now you’re doing your job and your former colleague’s job simultaneously. Twice the workload, half the staff: Efficiency! How’s the quality of that work though? It might start off like nothing’s changed. 6 months down the road of doing two jobs for the price (and time) of one, something’s going to give and keep giving until total collapse, or someone else is hired to help out, or you quit too. Missing: Efficacy.

This is the model we’re looking at for saving education budget overhead in Delaware? Come on guys. Haven’t we seen enough One Trick Ponies in Delaware budget & finance to know there is never, EVER a single sustainable solution to cost controls?

Across the board school district consolidation isn’t going to save the State money in the long run however, I do believe there are opportunities to improve both efficiency and efficacy through a combination of consolidation, real estate property reassessment, district property planning, and modified student funding formulas that will help control education costs and kill the medieval referendum process while we’re at it. Opportunities that do not include county-wide districts (been there, done that, failed) but DO involve consolidating smaller districts (both in population and geography), aligning the VoTech schools with the districts they’re located in, resecting the malignant State Department of Education, and hold on to your hats: incorporating charter schools into the districts they are located in.

If Governor Carney wants to talk budget reset, he has to talk about and ACT on this stuff. If the General Assembly wants to close the perennial budget gap, they have to talk about AND ACT on things like this. We’re out of piggy banks to raid. 1/3 of the state budget is education (I know you know that, just restating for emphasis). You can’t reset the budget unless you address the education funding and spending processes. Otherwise, it’s like rebooting your malware infected computer. You’ll get a few minutes of pop-up free screen space until you boot right back into the same infected system; it just gets worse the longer you ignore it.

About Brian Ess

Taking it one day, one hour, one minute, one second at a time. Dad, data dork, recoverer, public education supporter, developing policy wonk. per aspera ad astra

5 comments on “Education Spending Controls: No Single Answer

  1. I have mixed feelings on district consolidation, probably due to my years of dealing with RCCD school and district administrators. So much dead wood.

    I’m not saying that the positions weren’t needed; what I’m saying is that some of the people placed in those positions didn’t deserve to be there.

    I could spot a teacher, principal, asst. principal, etc. angling for an administration position a mile away. The first thing a teacher did was align themselves with the administration while simultaneously throwing their co-workers under the bus. (Disclaimer: Not everyone did this, but many did) If a principal was looking to move up to district office then they’d enforce the district line, even if it came at the expense of their school. I watched that happen.

    I don’t want to paint with a broad brush (okay, I just did), but, in my experience (during the RCCD charter and choice love-fest) some administrators were chosen for political reasons rather than competence. (Sheesh, not all!)

    The biggest problem to me is that we run education backwards. Administrators #1 job should be removing every obstacle from the teacher’s path – so, you know, the teacher can teach. They should be there to assist the teacher. Instead, some of them create more problems (and work) for teachers. Getting a administrative position shouldn’t be viewed as “moving up” or a promotion, complete with pay raise. It should be a lateral move.

  2. A really well thought out view but one view seems to be either missing or minimized….redundancy of tasks among these, what 19 administrations, not to mention the “consultant projects” that seem to be so prevalent in the education sphere. Duplication of daily tasks seems obvious in these many tiny (compared to many districts across the U.S.). You know it is human nature to fill up each day with work and tasks that have little or no impact on results.

  3. A well thought out “merger” will produce some efficiencies and probably not as many staff reductions as thought. So one Superintendent might end up with a Deputy or two to handle the increased workload and those deputies will come from other school districts. (Or maybe they will leave and the Superintendent could hire cheaper people). The cost savings are not going to happen immediately and those savings will likely not be as much as people think.

  4. Spending controls also seems to approach the problem in a counterintuitive way. We know a couple of things about an excellent education system:

    — Excellent schools increase property values
    — Excellent schools are an incentive for companies to relocate
    — Broadly available excellent education opportunities for all income levels decreases law enforcement and corrections spending

    If public education is already accommodating more kids than it did 8 years ago, then increased spending makes sense. It runs into the thinking of people who don’t want to pay for education AND into people who think we spend enough. What is missing is leadership that will defend these three things above.

    • The ‘cut your way to success’ mindset is strong. For sure. Public school enrollment has been steadily increasing over the last several years. Anywhere between 0.5-2% annually.

      Leadership is wanting at all levels. Boards of Ed, State, City, County. There are currently some champions out there, but not nearly enough.

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