School consolidation in NH: Some points for consideration
Date: April 7th, 2015
School Administrative Units (SAUs) have existed in some form in New Hampshire for almost a century. And for nearly as long, there have been debates over the size, layout and costs associated with these administrative bodies. The debate continues today, driven by several recent trends in the state’s education system:
• Demographic pressure, most notably declining school enrollments,
• Declining state financial aid,
• Increased pressure on districts for reporting, assessment and accountability from state and federal governments.
The argument for school consolidation usually rests on a handful of assumptions. Most common is the basic concept of economies of scale, whereby adding students to a school unit (district or SAU) reduces per-pupil costs if the additional students do not result in an increase in fixed costs. And while there are examples from other states in which consolidation has achieved financial savings and other improved outcomes, predicting where that can be accomplished is difficult without a detailed understanding of local community circumstances. In most instances, the impacts (whether financial, educational or community) of school/district consolidation vary widely according to the particular circumstances of each case.
If anything, research and past examples suggest that policymakers should avoid devising a single, state-mandated approach to SAU/district/school consolidation policy. The body of literature on this subject – as well as New Hampshire’s strong tradition of local control – advise against monolithic solutions to educational administration. Variations in student demographics, geography, school facilities, public will and community expectations will result in widely varied outcomes when it comes to school reorganization.
That said, the state has an interest in ensuring its policies don’t discourage consolidation, and may want to shift the balance towards encouraging consolidation, where appropriate, with existing policy levers.
Thus, policymakers should assess the tools available to them in reshaping New Hampshire’s school administrative structure, including state aid programs (particularly school building aid and the statewide adequacy formula), technical know-how and statutory tools that delegate powers to the state Board of Education and local communities.