13 Investigates


Breaking up the school district is hard to do

Does size really matter?
Posted at 5:06 PM, Aug 10, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-21 16:56:22-05

Stanford Elementary School Principal Ryan Merritt takes full advantage of the autonomy he gained through the school district's reorganization.

"I feel we're doing a good thing in empowering the students to know that it doesn't matter how old you are, you can make a difference within your community, within your school."

His students, parents and teachers on the School Organizational Team came together to force a long-needed fix of their dilapidated and dangerous playground.  

And it didn't take a district break-up to make their voices heard and get things done.

"What's the point of going through that hassle?" asks Brent Hussen, president and founder of the non-profit education consulting group Nevada Succeeds.

They've examined studies from all over the world showing size doesn't really matter.

"The data doesn't show that there's any correlation between the size of the district and student outcomes."  

Smaller districts can mean more administrators and more administrative costs but many think it's worth it, like Elena Rodriguez who's worked for CCSD for nearly three decades.

"I believe the district should be broken up," Rodriguez said. "It would be easier for transparency."

Data from the California Department of Education shows in large districts, communication and coordination problems are likely to reduce accountability.  

Rodriguez thinks smaller districts would make it easier to track how tax dollars are spent and be easier to manage. 

"Managing a district is one thing but producing student outcomes is another," counters Hussen. "And it's just not true that having more local control has made a difference. It's more about what you do with the kids in the classroom every single day."

Hussen points toOntario, Canada, where the whole province is one school district with 5,000 schools. That's more than ten times the size of CCSD.

"And between the years of 2002 to now they have made amazing progress," Hussen said.

Studies across the U.S. show achievement comes from the opportunity to learn, which is fostered by quality teachers and program offerings.  

Hussen says since 90 percent of all money in schools is spent on personnel, we should be focused on good old fashioned on-the-job training, "So that teachers can learn within the building that they actually work in."

He adds, "Good schools that do it right provide opportunities for those younger, less experienced teachers to learn from the older or more experienced teachers and they do it on a regular basis."

District Insider Elena Rodriguez agrees with that, but says it should be done in the context of smaller districts.

"It's just like a huge corporation. The bigger the corporation, the more difficult it is to see who's doing what."  

The California data shows size doesn't matter in districts that allow schools to have creative control over classroom content, resources and teacher training.  

More data from other studies:

More from the above-referenced California data:

  • If district-level decisions limit local school autonomy, the heterogeneous needs of pupils in large districts will not be met.
  • Fiscal controls at the district level may discourage or constrain innovation in program choice and resource use.
  • In large districts, communication and coordination problems are likely to reduce accountability. It will be relatively difficult for parents to make their concerns known. This top-down structure may have a negative impact on academic achievement.
  • Alternatively, there may be advantages of size. A centralized administration may allow large districts to spend relatively greater amounts of money on classroom instruction. If this is true, district size will be associated with relatively higher levels of academic achievement.
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