Greater Opportunity Through Innovative Change



Of the nation's 14,881 school districts, 311 are located in Arkansas. Only 16 states, including our nation's most populous, have more school districts than does Arkansas. And when compared to the number of districts in nine other Southeastern states, the 311 districts in Arkansas simply dwarf the average 118 districts in those states. (Appendix 8.1)

8.0 Concepts Reviewed

Why does Arkansas maintain so many school districts when other states are legislating fewer and fewer districts? Most Arkansas historians agree that the large number of Arkansas K-12 school districts is a product of Arkansas school history. Dr. Philip Besonen, then-professor, College of Education, University of Arkansas, wrote several years ago, "because of poor transportation and communication, the distance which an Arkansas child could walk or ride a horse at that time was very limited."

Thus, Dr. Besonen concluded that the same rationale for maintaining school districts in Arkansas back in the 19th Century still exists even though the 21 st century is rapidly approaching.

Former Senior Editor of the Arkansas Gazette, James Powell, once said: "No other state in the South, rich or poor, indulges itself in such an inherently wasteful clutter of school districts in administering and financing its public education. In Arkansas, governors come and go, along with legislators, but the basic operating pattern in public education is an enduring scandal."

Dr. Kern Alexander, a nationally recognized University of Florida education leader, conducted a major study of Arkansas School districts and their associated system of financing as early as 1977-78. Fifteen years ago, Dr. Alexander stated his study's conclusion: "The merger of school districts in Arkansas is absolutely essential. Arkansas cannot afford to have 300-plus districts. A rich state can't afford 300 districts. The dis-economics of scale, are so obvious."

In a related study, the Governor's Task Force on Financial Management of Arkansas Schools estimated in its report that $50 million a year could be saved by mergers into 100-110 districts. In addition to the need for cost-effective organization of Arkansas school districts, some have lingering questions of long standing as to the constitutionality of a 311 school district system.

For example, retired University of Arkansas Business Professor, Kermit Moss, in a statement issued to a Pine Bluff newspaper several years ago, opined, "Article XIV, Section 1, the Arkansas Constitution directs in part, 'the State shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free schools', I contend that it is not 'suitable and efficient' in counties of less than 20,000 population to have three sets of administrative offices and personnel when one set could efficiently handle the job. It is not 'suitable and efficient' to fragmentize our educational efforts and resources as we are now doing, when we could combine and concentrate our efforts and resources and do much better. Based on the clear and unambiguous language of the Arkansas Constitution, I believe that what we are doing is unconstitutional."

8.1 Comparing Arkansas with Another Rural State

Comparing public school systems in Arkansas with those of another state, Utah in this case, reveals some surprising data that highlight the magnitude of the problem in retaining a 19th century rationale for maintaining 311 school districts.

Utah at present has merged its districts into 40, largely county-wide districts, in the late 1960s. Utah, not unlike Arkansas, is not a wealthy state, is mainly rural and many of its people live in isolated mountainous communities. And some areas of each state have limited transportation, which complicates the busing needs of school children.

Utah's population of 1.7 million reside in 29 counties with 40 school districts spread over 82,076 square miles. Arkansas has a comparable population of 2.3 million residing in 75 counties with 311 school districts spread over 52,082 square miles. Demographically, Utah school districts average 43,000 people and 2,050 square miles per district, while Arkansas school districts average 7,595 people and only 694 square miles.

The average per-child expenditure in 1995-96 for education in Utah was $3,431 per child; for Arkansas $3,303. This is a difference of only $128 per child. The average teacher salary was $28,676 for Utah - $28,409 for Arkansas. The pay differential is only $267.

Utah with 40 districts serves 471,447 K-12 students with 21,788 teachers; Arkansas with 311 districts serves 432,317 students with 28,789 teachers. Thus Utah serves over 39,000 more students than does Arkansas and with 7,000 fewer teachers. Arkansas non-teaching positions per student at 1-to-18 far exceed the Utah ratio of 1-to-29.

The graduation rate for Arkansas students is 76.5%. In Utah it is 83.4%. Utah students score above the national average on the Stanford Achievement Test and the ACT College entry exam and Arkansas students score below the national average on both tests.

It would appear from this data that our 311 K-12 districts are not working nearly as well as Utah's 40 K-12 districts. Utah's 40 districts serve more students with fewer teachers and administrators, graduate more students, and Utah students score much higher on norm-referenced tests. (Appendix 8.1)

8.2 When Bigger Can be Better: Academically

When it comes to schools in Arkansas, more centralization threatens many Arkansans who harbor fears over loss of community identity and lower student achievement. These fears are unfounded.

A comparison of academic data for the 40 largest school districts in Arkansas versus the 40 smallest school districts is important; let the statistics speak for themselves. The 40 largest districts represent over 224,000 students, about one-half of Arkansas' 452,000 students, and average 5600 students per large district. The 40 smallest districts represent about 9300 students, and average only 230 students per small district.

The 1997 SAT-9 results for grades 5-7-10 in the state's 40 largest districts were 48-50-49, the Arkansas averages were 47-49-48, while the 40 smallest districts averaged 40-45-45. Although the 40 largest districts average-per-grade level tested were below the U.S. average-per-grade level, these scores exceeded the Arkansas averages and the average scores of the 40 smallest districts by four to seven points per grade level tested. (Appendix 8.2)

Similar results are noted in the 1997 High School Proficiency Examination data. This test, required by Act 1172 of 1997, was administered in October to 27,517 Arkansas high school juniors. Statewide, only 13 percent of the students passed the math portion of the test.

A comparison of the 100 percent failure rates between the state's 40 largest districts versus the 40 smallest districts is as revealing as the previous SAT-9 results. Of the 40 largest districts, none had a 100 percent failure rate for students tested. Of the 40 smallest districts, 18 districts or 38 percent of the 40 districts had 100 percent failure rates.

A similar comparative analysis of the highest and lowest performing Arkansas school districts reflects similar data to the 40 largest districts versus the 40 smallest districts data.

Of the "10 highest performing" school districts, only one district had a student enrollment of less that 300 students and thus, is the single district included in the "40 smallest district" category above. Similarly, only one district identified on the "10 lowest performing" school districts list also appears on the "40 largest district list". (Appendix 8.3) Clearly, when student achievement versus school district size is the issue, bigger is better!

8.3 When Bigger Can Be Better: Administratively

Conflicting theories abound about the administrative merits of large school districts as opposed do small school districts. Proponents insist larger school districts save administrative costs while others swear they raise costs. Since Arkansas has not had significant consolidations or annexations since 1984, little recent data exists on administrative costs for large versus smaller school districts.

Therefore, student achievement should serve as the catalyst for a review of why test scores and other factors are significantly higher in larger rather than smaller districts. Administrative re-organization, inequities in both curriculum and funding, and the elimination of small academic or enrichment programs that do not add significantly to student achievement must be examined.

As one Arkansas principal stated, "Administrative annexation of many of our smaller districts would provide our students with the best of school worlds. They'd have all the attention you get at a small elementary school and all the benefits of a larger high school and middle school with a much broader curriculum, band and other extra-curricular programs."

Following the marriage of three small North Carolina school districts into one large district under a single administrative staff, the current superintendent has reported: "Four years after our merger, students have improved in the core subjects of reading, writing and math; our dropout rate has fallen to a lower level; student performance on the ACT has increased for the past three years; local costs per child have dropped 4.5 percent while teacher salaries have risen 18.5 percent."

8.4 Bigger Can Be Better: Period!

In 1984, a young Okolona, Arkansas mother and teacher wrote, "How long will parents in large school districts continue to let their children be penalized by allowing millions of tax dollars to flow into small, inefficient systems? We cannot solve our educational problems by simply pumping dollars into our present inefficient systems. I am writing this as a plea not only for my children but every child in the state."

Like that Okolona mother who wrote years ago, our research lends support to her theory that Arkansas can and must take action. Here's one proposal on how to do it:

RECOMMENDATION 8.0 The General Assembly should enact legislation which re-structures, effective school year 1999-2000, Arkansas' existing 311 school districts into not more than 134 "administrative units", where an administrative unit is defined as "one superintendent and an associated superintendent's staff. (See Appendix 8.4, a Re-Structuring Proposal.)

This recommendation does not require the consolidation or annexation of any school districts. Nor does this recommendation require any reduction in teaching positions or non-certified, non-administrative positions in any district. Additionally, no district transportation systems will be impacted and no school sites will be closed. Every school can keep its mascot, football and basketball team and preserve long standing rivalries with other schools.

This recommendation simply urges that approximately 174 existing full-time and part-time superintendents now serving 177 of Arkansas' 311 smaller school districts be reduced in number to not more than 134 "administrative units": with each of these units being restructured to simultaneously serve two or more districts. With few exceptions--proximity and mileage restrictions--existing large districts and county-wide districts remain unaffected by such re-structuring.

For example, Benton county in Northwest Arkansas has seven school districts with seven superintendents serving approximately 22,000 students. Three of these districts-Gentry, Decatur, Gravette--are located on a 13 mile stretch of Highway 59. By this recommendation, the three superintendent positions would be restructured into a single "administrative unit" capable of administratively serving all three districts and their 3200 or so students simultaneously.

The proposed reduction in superintendent and administrative staff positions into far fewer "administrative units", if enacted, can commence in school year 1999-2000. School year 1999-2000 will serve as a transition, superintendent attrition and contract expiration year. Thereafter, state moneys to pay out-going superintendent salaries will be prohibited. Districts may elect to expend district moneys for such salaries.

No reductions in district school boards will be required by this proposal unless mutually accepted by the districts served by an "administrative unit". For example, and as noted above, Gentry, Decatur and Gravette currently have individual school boards. In school year 1998-99, the Gentry School Board would appoint two of its members to serve on a joint Administrative Board, as would the Decatur School Board, then the Gravette School Board, having the largest student population of the three districts, would appoint three of its members to the joint administrative Board serving the three districts.

8.5 Administrative Re-structuring: Cost-Savings

The General Assembly, the State Board of Education and the Department of Education must work hard and smart to utilize every dollar as cost-effectively as possible. By re-structuring existing superintendent positions into "administrative units" with multi-district responsibilities in most cases, we can reallocate millions of dollars back to the classrooms for instructional programs, teacher salary increases, better qualified certified personnel and technology.

This proposal would re-structure approximately 311 existing superintendent positions into 134 superintendent positions for 134 "administrative units". According to data compiled by the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators (AREA) research, the average 1997-98 salary for an Arkansas superintendent was $61,444. (Appendix 8.5) Likewise, 1997-98 fringe benefits for Arkansas superintendents reported by the AAEA--insurance premiums, school owned cars, school owned houses, utilities for houses, annual expense allowancess--when coupled with Social Security and retirements was on average, $12,903. The average annual cost of each Arkansas superintendent: $74,347. A reduction of approximately 175 superintendent positions would mean an annual savings of $13,011,000 dollars.

Re-structuring of superintendent positions into "administrative units" would also re-structure the staffing and other requirements for operating the existing 311 offices of the superintendents. Given a decrease of at least one secretary or bookkeeper ($15,500) and fixed charges, utilities, supplies, equipment, custodial care, telephone, travel and convention expenses ($5,100) for each of the 175 re-structured superintendent offices, another projected $20,600 annual savings per office or $3,605,000 would be realized.

When coupled with probable salary, retirement and fringe benefit increases, as well as utility and other fixed asset costs--estimated at 5 percent per annum--potential savings offered by this re-structuring proposal could well exceed, with projected increases, $17,447,000 annually and $174,470,000 over a ten year period.