Utah's school districts: Is Smaller Better?

By Julia Lyon
The Salt Lake Tribune
By Brooke Adams
The Salt Lake Tribune


With enrollments at all-time highs in some of the nation's largest school districts, parents and politicians from Nevada to Nebraska are calling for megadistricts to splinter to give residents more local control.
   Utahns unhappy about school closures and looming tax increases are part of that trend. Unlike residents of some other states, though, Utahns now can vote for their cities to break away from districts. A law passed by the 2006 Legislature has people from Orem to South Salt Lake pondering the possibility of creating new, smaller districts.
    Here's the problem, however: Researchers can't agree whether smaller districts are better.
    Utah Office of Education statistician Randy Raphael earlier this year concluded that an optimal school district would have 43,407 students. Such a district, he found, would be the most economically efficient based on enrollment and per-pupil spending. Larger school districts, such as Jordan School District - Utah's largest, with 77,400 students - can educate many more students than the optimal number without paying significantly more per student, his research found.
    Notably, Raphael's analysis only took economic efficiencies into account and did not factor in academic achievement such as test scores or graduation rates.
   But education quality is critical in the district-size debate, small-district proponents argue. Studies that support their view include an analysis of California public school data that suggests larger district size may negatively affect achievement. In 1999, students in larger districts did not fare as well on standardized tests as those in smaller districts.
    In a debate with lots of unanswered questions, the only certainty is that parents and politicians in Utah and nationwide want to gain more control of their schools.
    "If you want government by, of and for the people, it's got to be close enough to them that they can participate, they can understand it," said Rep. David Cox, R-Lehi, who sponsored the Utah law that enables districts to break up.
    Big vs. small: The Jordan district, which faces the potential withdrawal of at least two cities from its boundaries, sees strengths in its size.
   "Some of the reasons we're very efficient is we do have larger schools," said Burke Jolley, Jordan's business administrator. Class sizes that are average to higher than average save the district money on a per-pupil basis.
   Larger schools make it possible for the district to offer a variety of classes and programs, added Jordan Superintendent Barry Newbold. The district's size and larger budget also allow for the development of specialty schools for which smaller districts typically don't have the funds or students.
   A frequent argument in support of maintaining larger school districts is that forming smaller districts creates redundancies - another transportation department, another food-services program, etc.
   The argument doesn't necessarily wash with Richard Tranter, superintendent of the Murray City School District, one of the state's smallest urban districts. Smaller districts do have many of the same departments and staff that a larger, neighboring district just a few miles away may have. But small districts come up with creative solutions.
    Because of its size, the 6,500-student Murray district doesn't have layers of middle management, so many of the staff take on multiple responsibilities. The district also doesn't have the ability to do certain specialty programs, so it partners with other districts and Salt Lake Community College.
   "It doesn't mean our kids don't have access because we're small," Tranter said.
   People love the district - they feel they can identify with schools and school board members, he said. "There's a certain culture here that happens because of our size," Tranter said.
    And there can be a cost savings in staff salaries in smaller districts. Jordan's superintendentmakes just more than $155,000 in salary. In contrast, the Murray superintendent's pay is $118,520.
    Best use of money: Efficiency can be defined in different ways. While some of Utah's largest districts spend the least per student to get the job done, calculations differ. Of Utah's 10 largest districts in 2002-03, Jordan, with its 74,000 students, and Weber School District, fifth largest with about 28,300 students, spent a larger percentage on administration costs than the others, according to the most recent information available from the National Center for Education Statistics. Jordan spent 10 percent; Weber, 12 percent.
   Those compare with about 8 percent or 9 percent spent by other districts in the top 10.
   Other numbers show that although Jordan spent about $24 per pupil on administrative costs in 2002-03 - one of the lowest amounts - a few smaller districts spent significantly less per pupil, according to data from the Utah State Office of Education. During the same time, the 49,000-student Alpine School District spent about $16 per pupil.
Jolley, Jordan's business administrator, questions what such numbers suggest.
   "I would be hard-pressed to find any data [showing] that smaller- or medium-sized is more efficient than larger," he said. "Certainly, it's got to be the most economical for Utah."
   For one thing, taxes would have to increase to support creation of smaller districts, those who support maintaining large districts say.
   A 2004 study of a division of the Alpine district concluded as much, but Cox, the Utah legislator, argues that the higher property tax rate would only have occurred if voters had approved it.
    A nationwide issue: A supersized district isn't a problem from the perspective of some officials in Clark County School District, Nevada's largest with about 291,000 students. No law exists that would allow districts to subdivide, although the Legislature called for a deconsolidation study last year.
   Craig Kadlub, the district's director of government affairs, said the district is not yet convinced a smaller district would benefit students.
   "Our concern is that there's no evidence that simply carving up the district absent any other influence is going to improve achievement, and that's got to remain the bottom line," he said.
   But Cox said it could. Smaller districts could help preserve a strong, vibrant public education system at a time when vouchers and tuition tax credits threaten its future, he said.
   He said students would benefit academically by being in smaller districts, in part, because schools would likely be smaller. Cox points to research he's seen that suggests larger districts have larger schools.
   Though most of the districts criticized for their size remain intact, the Omaha, Neb., school district may be forced to divide into three districts thanks to a law passed earlier this year. But it's already had its challengers: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed a lawsuit against the state arguing that the law divides the district on racial lines.
   State Sen. Ernie Chambers, of Omaha, who is black and backed the plan, says it will create more local control and the districts will remain diverse.
   "When you give parents a meaningful voice in the education of their children, their interest level automatically increases," he said. "They know where their children go to school is going to be controlled locally by them."
    Experts say school-district size comes down to choices. A community has to weigh advantages of size, scale and efficiency against personalization, said Paul Koehler, director of the policy center at WestEd, a nonprofit research and development organization.
    How big is too big is in some ways unanswerable, he said.
   "There is no study that says if a district were this many, everything is going to be fine," Koehler said.