If you want to see a group of legislators scatter like a covey of quail, just mention the “C” word: consolidation.
Consolidation is one of the dirtiest words in politics, yet most honest observers will admit that Oklahoma has an excessive number of school districts. As of the end of the school year, Oklahoma has 533 public school districts in the state. According to numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics, less than 10 states in the union have more public school districts than Oklahoma. Kansas has just more than 300; Arkansas has just less than 250.
Yet, streamlining our educational infrastructure in Oklahoma seems like such a difficult task that you would think we were asking our elected representatives to cure cancer.
One avenue of eliminating about 20 percent of Oklahoma’s school districts wouldn’t even require consolidation. Simply do away with Oklahoma’s dependent school districts. A dependent district is a school district that does not have a secondary school. They are schools that lie within the attendance boundaries of another school district, and they only service grades kindergarten through 6th or 8th grade. The students living within their boundary lines actually are eligible to attend either the dependent district or the independent district. As of 2008, there were 107 of these districts in Oklahoma. That is 107 districts with all of the cost and expenses that are necessary to run a school, yet buses from surrounding districts are passing by their doors every day.
For many years, the argument against school consolidation has been that many students in rural Western Oklahoma would be forced to travel great distances every day to school. However, this argument doesn’t withstand even the mildest scrutiny when it comes to dependent districts, because the vast numbers of dependent school districts today are east of Interstate 35. In fact, two of the most densely populated counties in the state ” Canadian and Oklahoma ” have more than one school district that does not service a high school.
It’s time to make a school district stand on its own. Either a district can support a secondary school or it needs to close its doors. Why are we continuing to allow our tax revenue to support multiple school districts within the same attendance zones?
In Oklahoma County, we are supporting Oakdale and Crutcho. Canadian County residents are supporting Banner, Darlington, Maple and Riverside. And you folks in Cleveland County are supporting Robin Hill. Each of these schools maintains a budget that supports an administration, staff, transportation costs, as well as the expected cost to educate their students. Why?
If a law were passed today to eliminate dependent districts, each student at that school would simply begin attending a school district in which they already live. It would not involve the mass hysteria that is often associated with the idea of consolidating schools. And if a dependent district has the enrollment to support a high school, then they should do just that.
I’m not naive enough to believe this will happen any time soon. We’ve long said we have too many school districts in this state, yet anyone with the ability to do anything about it is too scared to take on the issue for fear of political retribution, therefore little gets done.
But requiring all districts in the state to meet the requirements of an independent district may provide a sensible avenue for lawmakers to streamline their numbers.
Smith is an attorney living in Oklahoma City.