Nan Austin

Even at schools, so much comes down to size and money

Modesto City Schools is the largest district in Stanislaus County, but is technically two districts governed as one: a high school district and an elementary district. Seen here is the district’s administration building.
Modesto City Schools is the largest district in Stanislaus County, but is technically two districts governed as one: a high school district and an elementary district. Seen here is the district’s administration building. Modesto Bee file

Is bigger better? Would more money change things?

It seems like so many stories lately seem to boil down to those two questions. Both size and resources make a difference. The tricky part comes in figuring how to measure what matters and if more would help.

In schools, where attendance generates the lion’s share of revenue and correlates with administrator salaries, the two are inseparable. Size equals money.

A new study from the Albert Shanker Institute says states that spend a lot more on schools generally have higher achievement. The report, “Does Money Matter in Education?” concludes that it does.

“Money must be spent wisely to yield benefits. But, on balance, in direct tests of the relationship between financial resources and student outcomes, money matters,” notes the summary page.

How much money? Well the California School Boards Association has a thought on that. In a report announced last week, CSBA concludes the state needs to spend $22 billion to $42 billion more to move the needle on achievement, or about a quarter to a third more than the state’s $76.6 billion allocation for 2015-16.

“There are clear benefits of a quality education system to students as they meet their potential and to the state through savings in social programs and increased tax revenue,” notes the report: California’s Challenge, Adequately Funding Education in the 21st Century.

More money would help districts on all fronts, from more training for teachers to field trips for kids to nicer campuses for everyone. That last issue, refurbishing older campuses, is the $1 billion dilemma facing Modesto City Schools.

Modesto is the largest district in Stanislaus County, but is technically two districts governed as one. The roughly fish-shaped Modesto City high school district stretches from Salida to Empire, taking students from seven elementary districts. One of those districts – serving central, west and south Modesto – is Modesto City Elementary.

The division matters when looking at a bond measure, which the board did as part of looking at ways to fund expensive repairs and upgrades needed at all the Modesto campuses. Another option is to use its reserves or, as it does for ongoing small fixes, its general fund that also pays district salaries.

The stark truth is that Modesto’s 22 elementary schools, with an average age of 60 years, need far more work than its eight high schools. But the high school district covers more ground and can raise taxes just a little to make a lot.

The elementary district, as financing expert Katherine Perkins told the board, “has 56 percent of the need, but a third of the tax base.”

If Modesto City Schools were a unified district, wealthier areas around the city would help carry the load for low-income areas now concentrated in the Modesto City Elementary territory. But, as history would have it, Stanislaus County stands as a hodgepodge of 24 districts.

Each has its own traditions and personality, its own tax base and bond bills, its own superintendent and school board.

Increasingly, most also have their own charter schools, providing a hedge against falling enrollment within their borders. Denair Unified, Paradise Elementary, Gratton Elementary and Waterford Unified all serve more students in their charter schools than they do in their regular schools.

This is where size gets complicated. Does it make sense to have boundaries that no longer support the higher overhead of being a district? Does having the choice to seek out a better fit matter more than money? Do district needs matter more than parent choice?

Each of those questions poses more than a philosophical debate. Denair and Turlock Unified will find out Feb. 17 if a county panel will allow a developer to move homes planned inside Turlock’s city limit to Turlock schools. The historical boundary sends Turlock families to Denair schools that urgently need the enrollment, the district stressed at hearings on the issue.

Why can’t the two districts work this out together? Because districts work like separate, sometimes competing businesses.

In Tuolumne County, a citizens group campaigned against having a dozen separate administrations for about 6,000 students. Their effort to put the issue to the voters fell short, however, of the 25 percent of voter signatures needed from every district to qualify it for the ballot.

Those small districts all spend 8 percent or more of their general fund revenue on administration, $800 to $1,325 per child in 2013-14. Larger districts typically spend 4 percent to 5 percent. In Stanislaus County, the 8,600-student Sylvan elementary district was the thriftiest, spending $290 per child on administration. Modesto City Schools spent $413 that year on the district office for each of its nearly 30,000 students.

Modesto is the largest district between Fresno and Stockton. It does not appear on a California Department of Education list of the state’s 25 largest districts for 2014-15, but with its 30,228 students it is within a stone’s throw of No. 25, San Ramon Valley Unified serving 31,954 kids.

The state, for the record, has 1,022 districts. The heavy hitter, weighing in at 646,683 students – a whopping 10.4 percent of the state’s enrollment – is Los Angeles Unified. The rest of the top 10 districts combined do not quite hit that number.

At the other end of the spectrum, the state’s smallest 25 districts together do not make up 1 percent. Mountain House Elementary, with 22 students, is the largest among them. The bottom 10 had 10 or fewer students each last year.

Do 10 schools with 10 or fewer students all need their own superintendent and school board? They would probably say yes, fearful that becoming a satellite school of another district would take away family feel and hometown traditions.

Those were the arguments for saving the La Grange school district before it was shuttered for falling to fewer than 10 students for several years. It had only a few attendees the day I visited, including one eighth-grader sitting alone in the junior high classroom.

Would it have been better for him to go to a larger school, with the possibility of same-age friends, clubs to join, teams to try out for? He said no. He transferred to La Grange to get away from all that.

Size and money: It’s complicated.