Northeast Louisiana may become ground zero for an educational experiment without parallel in Louisiana history: rather than looking to have a district separate, such as what happened with Ouachita Parish and Monroe City schools, districts may end up combining to a certain extent.
Last year, the Louisiana Legislature asked the Department of Education to review the deteriorating financial situation in many school districts. Particularly rural districts have fought stagnant if not declining populations, which dampen business activity and tax revenues, in the face of ever-increasing costs.
The report, released last month, noted that about a third of all districts faced fiscal pressure. Six in particular – Union, Morehouse, East Carroll, Tensas, Madison, and Catahoula the document identified at elevated risk. Together, these hosted 26 traditional public schools with around 9,200 students in the fall. Their 2018 financial reports (only up-to-date Catahoula has released its 2019 audit) excluding Catahoula show together their net positions deteriorated by $48 million from 2017 (Catahoula eked out a tiny gain from 2018 to 2019).
For that reason, the study recommended that the six districts consolidate their functions to an extent. They could create a shared support services center to combine procurement and transportation functions, for example. Appointed managers would run it, overseen by a board comprised of school board members from each member district.
The idea isn’t new in elementary and secondary education. For decades, states have set these up, disproportionately in areas with very fragmented educational delivery. And it’s no stranger in Louisiana higher education: a few years ago, the Louisiana State University System set up a model like this to coordinate personnel and procurement matters for its various campuses in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Shreveport, and Eunice.
Legislation potentially as early as this year could work out the details, but savings could come from bulk purchasing, consolidation of transportation maintenance, better bus route coordination that could save on fuel, etc. While they could combine on delivery of education for special-needs kids and the like, otherwise academic programming and local control over that would remain in place.
Legislative authorization, by creating a special sub-state governmental unit to accomplish this, would have overcome several roadblocks. For one, the districts aren’t entirely contiguous, with West Carroll interposed in the proposed lineup that runs east across the northern border starting at Union through Morehouse, then jumps to turn south at East Carroll and down the Mississippi River through Madison and Tensas before turning inland to Catahoula. Consolidation of certain functions may work better with contiguity, so perhaps folding in West Carroll would have to happen.
This leads to a second potential problem: district resistance to loss of autonomy in any form, with lobbying of their legislators to prevent any enaction of any changes along these lines. Some districts have done better than others in controlling costs, so their prize for that would be wresting from them authority over areas in which they managed well. Other simply see even a loss over fiscal care of ancillary functions as something that ripples monetarily into the academic side.
However, it’s helpful to recall that education is a state government function, which it historically has farmed out to established school districts (and now charter schools). Ultimately, it is a state concern, and state taxpayer concern, as to educational provision, and if finances work out that a consolidation could provide more money in the aggregate for academics, that should be pursued.
But this leads to another issue, whether the state should increase subsidization of these districts to run the superstructure that governs the shared services. If part of the package, opponents could use that increased cost statewide to build enough skepticism in lawmakers across the state to scuttle the deal.
Regardless, the idea deserves serious consideration in the legislative regular session beginning next week, and at this time represents the most fiscally sound option for these districts and the state ultimately responsible for children’s education.