New figures from Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna shows that Idaho could save $15.3 million a year in state funding by consolidating the state’s 115 school districts to match the boundaries of the state’s 44 counties. Most of that savings, $11.7 million, would come from consolidating districts in seven counties with multiple school districts. Those estimates come from the current year of school spending. The state is spends more than $1.2 billion on public schools, so consolidation would save approximately 1 percent of state school spending.
Luna told Idaho senators Wednesday that he doesn’t want the state to require districts to merge. “I do not support forced consolidation,” he said. “I have respect for local control.” He said that many smaller districts are wary of consolidation. “When I go into our small rural districts, the fear of consolidation is higher,” he said. “Most everybody believes that Idaho should consolidate, but just not their district.” While school consolidation has been a popular topic of questions for Luna, lawmakers have taken no action on consolidation this session.
Luna said the overall savings of consolidation may not be as large as some people would expect because while Idaho has a larger number of school district than some of its neighbors, the state is spending less on administrative costs than surrounding states. Idaho’s 115 districts are more than Nevada, Wyoming, and Utah combined, but Wyoming pays almost twice as much on school administration, per student. “There is not a big financial savings that some people intuitively assume would be there.”
The $15 million the Idaho State Department of Education identifies in savings comes from merging districts within a county and calculating the reduction in school support units, which is the department’s measure of students in a district that determines state funding. Support units are similar to the number of classrooms in a district. Larger school districts have more students in a support unit, while smaller districts are allowed fewer students in a support unit. That disparity in funding is called a sparsity factor.
The counties that could save the most by merging all their districts are Twin Falls, Gooding, Canyon, Payette, Bingham, and Lincoln, accord to the education department figures. Besides the sparsity factor, rural counties also wouldn’t see a reduction in support for isolated schools. “If schools are really far away, they don’t get as much support, historically, from the central district,” said Jason Hancock, the education department’s deputy chief of staff. “You don’t have those economies of scale in a remote location.” Hancock added that new technologies could bridge that distance. New legislation would be needed to change the funding formula for state money going to local school districts.
Luna said he favors encouraging districts to work across district lines and share services like technology support, human resources, and administrative services.