School district consolidation

Trying to improve something as large as education funding means all ideas need to be on the table, including some that at first blush appear to have challenges. Taking an approach of how school district consolidation could work is a good start.

School district consolidation by Nancy Knowlton

A number of years ago I was asked to address a group of U.S. school superintendents who were holding their annual meeting. They had a lot of SMART products in their classrooms and were committed to adding more. I was asked to present the story about how Dave and I had started and built SMART Technologies. The superintendents were curious about how a company like SMART actually came to life and then flourished. I was also asked to give them something controversial to consider.

Initiate bold action

True to the request, I told the story of SMART to the assembled superintendents, and it seemed to go over well. With 10 minutes left, I took a deep breath and put out my controversial topic for their consideration. I told them that while I didn’t know the individuals who would be in the audience that day, I had a sense of who they would be. I thought that within the upcoming 5 to 10 years all of them would be retiring from their roles, and it was that impending retirement that could give them the freedom to initiate a bold action to work on the broad-based consolidation of school districts across the country. There was polite applause at the end of the presentation and people came up to thank me for telling the SMART story. There was no reaction to the controversial topic that I raised.

Call me naive, but I expected more reaction. Passively consuming a story, as interesting as I think the SMART Technologies story is, pales in comparison to active engagement on a potentially emotional topic like school district consolidation. Here’s what drives some of my thinking on this urgent topic.

Looking at the math

The United States has 14,000 school districts. Doing some very simple math (essentially dividing by 50), that makes 280 school districts per state. The range in size of school districts is enormous – all the way from one-school districts through to the million-plus level. Each of these districts has a level of central office or administrative staff, some based on the size of the student body but some key functions are required regardless of the size. It is that administrative expense that concerns me in overall education spending.

Maintaining the status quo

The argument is often made that local control and governance is needed for districts to allow parents and the community to adequately provide their perspectives and desires. Most recently local control has been argued against the common core state standards that have been supported and are in the process of being implemented by all but a handful of states. The standards involve what knowledge and skills a student needs to acquire. Districts and teachers determine how the standards are met.

Benefits to change

It is always easy to agitate against change by looking at the potential negatives, but how about starting with a focus on how the goals and objectives of education can be accomplished cost effectively through the elimination of duplicative administrative structures? If one considers what happens in all districts across a state, it doesn’t take a lot to understand that much work is duplicated. Where can economies be had so that more money reaches the classroom and has a greater impact on education outcomes?

This is a difficult issue for many because change is hard. The big worry in change is that things will get worse, that somehow something good will be lost. The reality is that the outside world is changing, and people everywhere are either currently adapting or will need to adapt in the future. A person can no longer sit comfortably anywhere around the world and consider that he can function strictly on a local basis. The Internet and technology are disrupting industries and ways of working every day. To get ahead of imposed change requires foresight and courage. Disrupt yourself or be disrupted is one way of thinking about the issue and that means putting potentially sacred cows on the table for consideration.

Thinking about school district consolidation is but one small element of the larger need to build a responsive education system for the 21st century. Putting a collection of the best and brightest minds who are data-driven and who seek and align with appropriate strategies from a global examination of effective strategies is truly the best way to go. Then at the very local level, parents, teachers and all interested parties can focus on how they can equip their students to compete in a rapidly evolving global environment.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.