Does school consolidation cut costs?

BRISTOL — With discussions like the one in Bristol last week about how schools can work together to save money by working together, many are asking the question, “Does school consolidation really cut costs?”
The Legislature has offered Vermont towns an incentive to perform RED (Regional Education District) studies to see how a type of school consolidation would work for them.
The RED study template, created by the Vermont Department of Education, explains the reasoning behind RED-study incentives:
“The rationale for the creation of this incentive system is that larger school districts afford their students broader opportunities, while at the same time reducing costs, in the long term, through economies of scale and through more efficient utilization of buildings and personnel.”
But would consolidation cut costs for Addison Northeast Supervisory Union districts? According to the same template, answering this question is one of the main goals of a RED study.
A 2005 report published by the Syracuse University Center for Policy Research said that data from rural New York schools show that doubling the enrollment of a 300-pupil district dropped the adjusted cost per pupil by 23 percent and that doing the same for a 1,500-pupil district decreased the cost per pupil by 4 percent.
Studies in other regions of the country, however, have shown that consolidation doesn’t cut costs.
At a Starksboro town meeting earlier this month, local politicians breeched this exact subject.
“There is no evidence that (consolidation) would save costs,” said Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol. “There was a large (nationwide) consolidation effort in the ’70s, and it didn’t save any money … There may be some other really good reasons to consolidate … but saving a lot of money isn’t one of them.”
Sharpe’s colleague Rep. Mike Fisher disagreed.
“I’ve got to think that there’s money to be saved,” the Lincoln Democrat said. “It would seem to me like if you’re going to buy fuel for (more schools) … you’re going to have more pull and weight behind that purchase, let alone all of the other stuff.”
Sharpe explained that more personnel would be needed to manage more resources. Former ANeSU Business Manager Susan Jefferies said the ANeSU once looked at consolidating fuel purchases.
“We found that there wasn’t one fuel oil company that serviced all of the schools, so we couldn’t go to one place and consolidate our buying power,” she said. “When I think about things that might save money, it’s doing something one time, rather than six, seven or eight times.”
In some ways, ANeSU has already begun this type of consolidation. The food service cooperative, headed by Kathy Alexander, has consolidated food buying power and cooking equipment purchases for most of the schools. The supervisory union also added a new position, facilities director, whose task is to use economies of scale to drive down cost for contractors and school facilities supplies, Superintendent Evelyn Howard said. Alden Harwood holds that the position.
But those are just little changes compared to the kind that education consultant Ray Proulx talked about last week.
Some believe these big sweeping changes need to happen sooner rather than later.
“Nobody likes change, but as Ray said the other night, ‘It can’t stay the same, (the school system) has to change,’” said Bonita Bedard, chair of the Starksboro school board. “ Well, if it’s going to change, we should be the ones making the changes.”

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