Editorial: School consolidation by whatever name isn't going to happen

Editorial Board • Jun 22, 2020 at 10:30 PM

Every now and then, the corpse of Sullivan County-wide school consolidation is exhumed, dusted off and marched forth for a time, only to be reinterred until the next county commissioner or city alderman wonders why the county shouldn’t save money by merging its three districts.

What kills the notion every time it’s re-examined is that generally, school district consolidation doesn’t lower costs. It raises them. For instance, in 1998 when the Knoxville and Knox County school districts merged, the share of property taxes devoted to education increased 57% in the first five years.

Why? Because differentials in salaries and benefits, by law, have to be equalized in accordance with the system offering the most beneficial packages, and there are stark differences in pay and benefits between the Kingsport and Bristol districts and the county’s. As well, larger schools require added tiers of administration and additional maintenance, operational and transportation costs.

Then too, city districts aren’t interested in merging because they fear the higher value their residents are willing to place on education will, over time, diminish in a consolidated district over which they will have less control.

So sensitive is the suggestion of merging county districts that the sponsor of a resolution approved by the county to form a committee was advised to reword it from being a consolidation study to one which would “discuss collaborative actions and/or the potential for Sullivan County, the City of Kingsport and the City of Bristol School Systems to form a working alliance in an effort to increase student opportunities.”

Nice wording but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a consolidation study. Nor will it, we predict, come to a vote. And even if it does, we further predict, it will not be approved by a majority of voters in each city and the unincorporated area of the county.

In 2007, ETSU student Timothy Harrison, in pursuit of his Ph.D. in education, presented a dissertation examining the subject. He found that in Northeast Tennessee on average city school systems spent roughly $1,300 per child more than county school systems and city school system teachers earned on average $5,900 more than county school system teachers.

Student achievement levels in math and reading/language were higher in city school systems than in their county school system counterparts.

Statewide, the mean percentage of students in city school systems who scored in the advanced proficiency level for math was 4.7 percentage points higher than their county school system counterparts. In Northeast Tennessee, it was 15.6 percentage points higher for city versus county students in math and 12 percentage points higher in reading/language.

Harrison found wide discrepancies among programs offered to students, teaching salaries and student achievement and that consolidation, “according to one city administrator, was a huge misconception. Putting school systems together was not a money-saving issue. Consolidation only set back the educational process.”

It never hurts to talk, and there are ways to save money this committee may find in looking at coordination and cooperation in such areas as facility utilization, purchasing, transportation, sharing of resources, curriculum planning, transfer policy and professional development.

But consolidation? That’s not going to happen unless the state makes it happen.

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