Two articles in today's Boston Globe (Sunday, March 8, 2009) discuss public school regionalization.

The first, in the the Globe West section, details an effort by Sudbury officials to explore options including merging with the Lincoln-Sudbury regional district and/or with Wayland.

The second, in the Ideas section, states in part:
But a wave of research from around the country shows that consolidation does not improve schools or lead to better academic results. Spending on education does not go down; indeed, budgets often balloon with increased transportation costs and more administrators to run enlarged districts. Consolidation leads to schools closing and to bigger schools, with less parental involvement and community participation. And, in many parts of the United States, it has led to children on unconscionable bus rides lasting several hours a day.

We know from the transportation difficulties last fall, and even the current "steady state," that long bus rides--while not to the level cited above--are just as unpopular here in Wayland.

If there are educational gains and/or cost savings to be had, I'm all for exploring regionalization. In fact, this topic is one explicitly on the plate of the FY10 Ad Hoc Budget Committee on which I serve.

It's worthwhile to take a quick look at the enrollments of our surrounding towns. Ours is 2,900 students. Framingham and Natick are much larger, of course, at 8,500 and 4,700 students, respectively. And with no slight to those towns, they are quite different from Wayland. Weston has 2,400 students, Sudbury 3,300 (K-8), Lincoln 1,200 (K-8), and Lincoln-Sudbury 1,600 (9-12).

I'll limit my remarks here to joining with Lincoln-Sudbury and Weston. Broadly speaking, there are two types of combination: administration and/or instruction. An administrative merger would combine functions without affecting where children go to school. An instruction merger would combine schools in some form.

Comparing the current levels of administration across the three districts reveals some interesting information.
  • Combined K-12 L-S district: 243 students per administrator
  • Wayland: 282 students per administrator
  • Weston: 220 students per administrator
As it currently stands, therefore, Wayland runs the leanest "administrative ship."

As I'm using the label, "Lincoln-Sudbury" refers to what I'll call a composite district: the Lincoln Public Schools (K-8), the Sudbury Public Schools (K-8), and Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School (9-12). The composite L-S per pupil expenditure for FY07 was $12,843*, a bit less than Wayland's $13,214. At present, three school committees, two boards of selectmen, and two town meetings oversee the three "pieces." Adding Wayland to the mix would be complicated, but complicated isn't reason enough to dismiss the idea.

One thing that combining forces with L-S would not do, however, is address the facility deficiencies at Wayland High School. At present, LSRHS has on the order of 200 empty seats, not nearly enough to house the 900 WHS students. The value of a merger with L-S would appear to boil down to potential administrative savings; given that they already have more administration than we do, and given that the addition of close to 3,000 Wayland students would make a combined L-S-W district top out at over 9,000 administratively demanding students, it's not clear to me that such a savings exists.

Turning my attention to Weston, we again find that their high school does not get us out of our high school bind--they simply don't have the capacity to take in our student body. Moreover, their per pupil expenditure is dramatically larger than ours: $16,463 to $13,214. To put this difference in perspective, were we to apply the delta to our 2,900 students, we would increase our budget by nearly $10M on top of the $30M or so that we currently spend. To combine administrations would force one of four dynamics, none particularly palatable: raising our expenditure to match theirs, dropping their expenditure to match ours, finding a middle ground, or continuing to exist with a disparity (which I suspect would prove to be at best awkward for a single administration to manage).

Of the two possible consolidations, Wayland-Weston probably makes more sense than Lincoln-Sudbury-Wayland. W-W would have fewer moving parts and a smaller geographic area. What is not clear is what the best school committee model would be--one, two, or three--and what difficulties would be raised by requiring votes (as L-S does today) from two town meetings.

Given the current high performance of the three districts, I suspect that the primary educational gain from consolidation would be in the area of broader course offerings. On the cost side, unless we are willing to accept larger classes, the savings would be at the administrative level, perhaps partially or wholly offset by transportation costs if there were also an instructional consolidation.

Wayland's Administration has recently reached out to both neighboring districts for the purpose of discussing regionalization. I will be interested to hear what we learn, and also to hear what other residents think on this topic.

*I calculate composite PPE by normalizing the separate L, S, and L-S PPEs using their respective enrollments.
Lincoln: 1,230 students, $17,253 PPE
Sudbury: 3,338 students, $10,395 PPE
L-S: 1,627 students, $14,534 PPE

L-S composite: (1,230 x $17,253 + 3,338 x $10,395 + 1,627 x $14,534) / (1,230 + 3,338 + 1,627) = $12,843