Thursday, April 3, 2014

Operational Efficiency 3: Won't our new schools be significantly more efficient than our smallest schools?

Won't our new schools be significantly more efficient than our smallest schools? The short answer is not necessarily.

In previous posts, I have argued that (a) we need to be sure that we are compared apples to apples when we discuss operational costs between schools by controlling for differences in allocated special education and at-risk funds, and (b) smaller schools can be and, in our district, often are more operationally efficient than larger schools.

In this post, I will show that two of our three smallest elementary schools are actually cheaper, per student, than our newest elementary school. What is particularly interesting about this fact is that the newer school is often presented as being "right-sized" and as a model of operational efficiency in our district. Here is the graph that plots the cost per student at those three schools:

Some things to note:
  •  all three of these schools are above the mean of per student costs for all 19 elementary schools.
  • all three of these schools are substantially below the per student state allocation
  • one of the two small schools has been frequently discussed as a good option for closing for the sake of operational costs
  • The new, larger school is the second worst elementary school out of all 19.
So, what conclusions can we draw from this?

(1) At the very least, it will likely take 3-5 years before a new elementary school will become more efficient than any school that it replaces. Borlaug still isn't there. It would behoove us to consider this as we move into an era where we may have school board members and administration officials suggesting that we close more of our elementary schools for the sake of operational efficiency.

(2) Smaller schools can be run in an operationally efficient manner. To do so, it is important to have relatively stable class sizes approaching the district's suggested sizes. The redistricting will help us achieve this goal in a way that could help keep our smaller schools running efficiently.

(3) The reason our newest school is sometimes presented as being operationally efficient even now is because the district is comparing apples to oranges. Borlaug has one of the lowest, per student, allocations of special education and at-risk funding. So, when someone compares Borlaug's overall operational efficiency and doesn't control for this, it makes it seem as if its is performing better than it really is. We need to critically evaluate the information that is presented and make sure that we are comparing apples to apples.


  1. Yep, exactly! Beautiful! Thank you for putting this so well in a way that eluded my abilities!

  2. What I don't understand in all this talk about school closings--is why the community as a whole isn't outraged that Shimek and Lincoln (the two smallest schools next to Hills) that have some of the lowest FRL numbers, why they aren't signaled out as to be either be closed or consolidated. Those schools do not fit in with the master plan of larger schools 300-600 that the rest of the district has, and how are kids then getting an equitable education? Don't people feel that students in the Shimek and Lincoln are getting a better education since those schools are smaller with the lower frl rates, and therefore they are a more desirable place for teachers to be and want to stay at? Why aren't people mad about the lower student to teacher ratio at those schools? How is any of this equitable in the ICCSD?

  3. Anonymous (8:42): Thanks for your comment. I think discussion about equity in our district is impoverished. Here is a post that I've made about it previously. Basically, I'm much more concerned about justice than about everything being exactly the same. In short, I maintain that inequities can be justified if and only if they benefit the least well off. Whatever way we address the inequity concerns between Lincoln and Shimek, it must benefit those who are least well off. I'm cautiously optimistic that the redistricting in Cluster 1 will help with Lincoln, and I believe the same could be said about Shimek later on. We will need to continue fighting for justice (in the sense I've described).

    A couple of minor corrections: I don't think its a universal opinion in our district that smaller schools are better academically. Furthermore, the student to teacher ratio at Lincoln isn't particularly far from the norm. That's largely because of combined-class grades, which Shimek doesn't have.

    Julie: Thanks for your comment, too.