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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

South Dakota #5 in Small School Districts -- Nationwide, States Press Consolidation

Talk of school consolidation raises hackles (including mine) here in South Dakota. But according to this Stateline article, fiscal pressures are forcing school districts in Maine, Vermont, Mississippi, and elsewhere to consider merging:

...Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has asked a blue-ribbon commission to come up with a plan for reducing the state’s number of school districts by a third. “If you picture a state with 82 counties and 152 school districts you start to see part of the problem,” says Dan Turner, a spokesman for Barbour. “This is both an educational opportunity and an economic necessity.” The governor’s office claims that the change will save $65 million, but acknowledges that as a “guesstimate” [Melissa Maynard, "Still Too Many Schools?" Stateline.org, 2010.03.22].

Note Mississippi's numbers: 82 counties, 152 school districts. South Dakota has 66 counties and 150-some public school districts.

Maynard also notes that Arkansas consolidated schools after setting the minimum school district size at 350. That size was a compromise down from the original proposal to set the minimum size of districts at 1500. Minimum district size in South Dakota: 100. A minimum enrollment of 350 would close about half of South Dakota's school districts.

I got curious about the number and size of school districts nationwide. Here's what I found:
  • 32% of our school districts have enrollment under 200 students, defined in our statutes as the "small school" category. Only four states have a larger percentage of small schools: Maine (46%), North Dakota (51%), Vermont (51%), and Montana (66%).
  • Nationally, 14% of school districts have fewer than 200 students.
  • 13 states have no districts with fewer than 200 students. Those states include Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and West Virginia, all of which have significant rural populations.
  • South Dakota has about 50 school districts serving fewer than 200 students. Utah and Nevada, with all their wide open spaces and isolated small towns, each list just one such small school district.
  • Overall, Utah serves 580,000 students in 40 school districts. Nevada serves 470,000 students with 17 districts: one for each county, one for Carson City. South Dakota's 150-some districts serve 140,000 students.
We'll continue to discuss merits of different-size school districts. These numbers simply put the choices South Dakota has made in perspective with how other states organize their schools.

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