Alex Cameron, Oklahoma Impact Team
SASAKWA, Oklahoma -- There are few things that get people in one rural Oklahoma town more riled up than when people from Tulsa or Oklahoma City start talking about the need to consolidate school districts. They and other small town residents don't want the big cities telling them how to run their schools.
People who live in the state's urban centers say they're not interested in telling anyone how to run their schools, they're only interested in reducing administrative overhead and saving precious education dollars.
Proponents of consolidation point to statistics that show Oklahoma being among the biggest spenders -- percentage wise -- on school administration.
For example, Colorado has a total of 181 school districts. That works out to one district for every 6,000 students. In Virginia, there are 135 districts -- one district for every 8,900 students. Compare those to Oklahoma, where there are currently 527 school districts -- one district for every 1,200 students.
Such numbers, proponents said, show just how top-heavy Oklahoma's public education system is.
Critics of consolidation said, if you focus on numbers, you miss real value of a school and the district to which it belongs.
"Good evening ladies and gentlemen," boomed the voice of the public address announcer, "Welcome to the campus of Sasakwa High School."
Last Thursday night was a big night in Sasakwa, not because the football team was chasing a spot in the playoffs (the Vikings were sporting a 1-7 record), but simply because they have a football team, and it was playing a home game. Football under the lights can generate excitement in any town, but especially in places like Sasakwa where the population is sparse, and unifying events are scarce.
Talk of consolidating school districts quickly turns to the thing that people in Sasakwa and all small districts fear -- the possibility that their school could be closed, and the fellowship of the home football game lost.
"It would be awful to lose it, just awful," said Amber Heard, Sasakwa resident.
To Heard and other Sasakwa parents, 'consolidation' means schools will close, and that would mean longer bus rides for their kids, less one-on-one attention from teachers, and bigger, more intimidating schools
"Our children feel safe here," said Sasakwa resident Angie Brown. "At larger schools, you know, there's stabbing's, there's fighting. We don't have that here."
"I know they're worried about their football teams. I know they're worried about their towns, I understand that," stated Rep. David Dank, a 2-term Republican from NW Oklahoma City who is prepared to introduce legislation mandating restructuring of the state's smaller districts.
Dank said he wants rural Oklahoma to prosper, but he believes the state is wasting millions of dollars a year by allowing the public education system to continue operating so inefficiently, especially in eastern Oklahoma.
"Western Oklahoma has done a relatively good job of consolidating, of restructuring," Dank said, "Eastern Oklahoma is a runaway train -- they will just not face the problem."
Dank points to the fact that Oklahoma County -- the most populous county in the state -- has 15 school districts. Leflore County, which has a total student population of less than 10,000, has 17 school districts whose superintendents earn a combined $1.3 million. Statewide, superintendents were paid more than $51 million in the 2009-2010 school year.
"That seems really high to me," said Dean Nelson, an Edmond parent and product of a small school district.
Nelson and other Edmond parents were shocked to hear about the high compensation, and unhappy with the number of districts.
"That's a waste of our money right there," said Kristin Linholm, "it's a waste."
Metro area parents join Dank in calling for districts to be consolidated.
"I don't think redistricting means that you can't still have successful small schools," explained Ann-Clore Duncan, "it just means you will have fewer administrators to manage the different schools."
Dank's legislation, if approved, would provide for the restructuring of all districts with fewer than 500 students -- that's about 300 districts. The bill would prohibit the closing of any school for restructuring purposes for at least five years. And then a school could only be closed if it fails to meet state academic standards.
"We've got to take money out of administration and put it into the classroom where it belongs."
"I don't see how this is gonna save money," said Jim Mathews, superintendent of Sasakwa schools.
Mathews earns $96,000 annually to preside over a district with 260 students. He says the money is justified because he, like the superintendents of other small districts, have to do several jobs.
"We're everything from the janitor to the bus driver," said Mathews. "I teach a class -- we do a little bit of everything and so it's more than just being the superintendent of the school."
He believes that superintendents already have their plates full, and that asking them to take the reins of additional districts would backfire and end up costing the state even more.