Arizona has 237 school districts.* A natural first reaction upon hearing this is, "Why?!" We can't possibly need that many districts, can we? Every district has to manage its own superintendent, elected governing board, district office, curriculum, salary schedules, bus fleet, IT systems, and so on. There must be cost savings in combining all those administrative functions, right?
Arizona is not unique in trying to figure out what to do with all of its districts. Across the country, many states have pushed through significant consolidation even as hundreds of districts remain. Iowa, with a population less than half that of Arizona, has 361 districts today—down from more than 4,500 in the early 1960s. Michigan has 551 districts, compared to 1,200 in 1965. Illinois has eliminated more than 100 school districts since 1984 and still has 860 today. Here in Arizona, we also have far fewer districts now than in the early days of statehood. In the 1921-22 school year, Arizona had 440 districts for only 44,000 students. That’s an average of just 100 students per district!
But what impact does all of this have? Does having too many small districts really drive up costs?
Two separate studies on this issue from Syracuse University show that combining districts tends to save money only if each one is smaller than 1,500 students. In 2001, Arizona’s Joint Legislative Budget Committee looked into this and estimated that a massive consolidation plan would save the state just $23.6 million annually. (See image at above right.) Adjusted for inflation, that would be $33.6 million in 2017 dollars—not pocket change, but still less than 1 percent of the state's $4+ billion annual appropriation for education.
In urban areas like Phoenix, only a few school districts are smaller than the 1,500-student benchmark mentioned above. These include Riverside Elementary, Wilson Elementary, and Fountain Hills Unified. (Murphy Elementary, Union Elementary, and a few other districts come in just above the 1,500-student cut-off.) Fountain Hills Unified is a good example of the difficulty of consolidation: Who would they combine with? Scottsdale Unified, whose board meetings take place a good 30 minutes away, is the only neighboring district other than Indian reservations. And given Scottsdale's recent struggles, Fountain Hills is probably happier to stay on their own.
With this point in mind, consider that in 2002, at the direction of Republican governor Jane Hull, the legislature formed a School District Unification and Consolidation Commission. After a year of meetings, in October 2003 the Task Force issued its 472-page final report that did not include any formal recommendations at all. None. (See image at below right.) The group could not agree on a single course of action even after a full year of working together. This shows the difficulty of making concrete progress on district consolidation despite what would seem to be its common-sense appeal.
Democratic governor Janet Napolitano tried her hand at the district consolidation issue starting in 2005. She tapped Martin Schultz, then the Vice President of Government Affairs for Pinnacle West Corporation, to lead her effort to shrink the number of districts in the state. Schultz took several years to produce a detailed plan to combine 76 districts into 27 large, K-12 (“Unified”) districts. For consolidation and/or unification to take place, Arizona law currently requires a majority of voters in each district to approve the plan. In the case of this plan, voters in all but four districts soundly defeated it when it appeared on their ballots in 2008—and those four districts sued to avoid having to implement it.
District consolidation proposals that cover rural areas, as the Napolitano/Schultz plan did, also have to contend with the hard constraints of geography. Arizona is a large state with wide swaths of open area between settled cities and towns. Coconino County, for example, is half the size of Indiana and larger than Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island combined. Six Arizona counties are larger in area than New Jersey. That means any attempt to consolidate our 100+ rural districts across the state into unified county-wide districts, for instance, could run into logistical difficulties due to the distances involved and could make it harder for families to meet with district officials.
So here's the bottom line: Governors from both parties have tackled this issue multiple times since 2000, for years at a time, and have gotten nowhere. Could we combine some of our school districts to save money? Yes. However, the number of school districts with clear potential cost savings and probable community support would likely be a dozen or less. Total dollars saved would be minimal relative to the state budget. So should we do it anyway? Maybe. Making every district a K-12 district, for example, probably has academic advantages separate from budget questions. Just don't expect consolidation to make a huge difference for school funding. And be glad that compared to the 860 districts in Illinois, our 237 districts look positively conservative by comparison.
* From the FY2017 Superintendent's Annual Report (warning: large ZIP file)