Rep. Thad McClammy, D-Montgomery, thinks his latest legislation can do just that.
McClammy has introduced a bill in the Legislature that would establish a statewide commission to take a critical look at Alabama’s school districts -– from the Jefferson County system to the city schools of tiny Linden –- with an eye toward merging some of them.
“Does it make sense to have 67 counties and 132 school districts?” McClammy said. “In a time when we’re cutting the budget, I think we’ll find that we could save a lot of money and improve the education of our children by closing some districts and reducing education costs.”
McClammy’s bill, HB94, would create a 13-member Permanent Committee on School District Consolidation, which would develop a statewide comprehensive plan for consolidating school districts. He says the panel would function like a federal Base Realignment and Closure committee, or BRAC, in that it would look at the big picture, without fear or favor, and suggest mergers of districts that aren’t cost-effective.
The group’s decisions wouldn’t have any binding authority, and cities and counties would still have to make their own decisions about whether to consolidate. But the committee’s suggestions would hang over the heads of recalcitrant districts, prompting the question of why a single rural county or urban area would need multiple superintendents, when one would do – and would be cheaper.
It’s a question McClammy thinks people should ask. He points to Montgomery County, home to the state’s second-largest city, where there’s a single public school system. And he points to Marengo County, with a total population equivalent to the city of Anniston, where there are three school districts, the smallest of which serves Linden, a city of just 2,200.
So far, McClammy’s bill lacks the powerful friends it needs in the Legislature. McClammy’s party was routed last November, and no Republican has offered to co-sponsor his bill, at least so far. That could change Wednesday, when the House Committee on Education Policy will take up the bill.
McClammy is making a very Republican case for the bill – talking the budget-cutting talk that helped bring the GOP to power.
He’s even ready to counter the argument that his bill would just create another state panel. His bill would budget only $10,000 for the board – for “donuts and coffee and travel,” he said.
“If the Legislature is really serious about eliminating waste in government, and if they’re really interested in cutting the budget, this is an obvious thing to do,” he said.
There’s another side to district consolidation, one that McClammy doesn’t lead with, though he’s happy to acknowledge it.
“This would probably lead to more integrated schools,” he said. “How do you think we got all these districts in the first place?”
When courts began to mandate school integration in the in 1950s and 1960s, new school districts began to pop up around the South. Federal law mandates integrated schools within each district, but “white flight” communities found out they could stay effectively segregated by seceding and creating their own school systems.
Admittedly, not all of Alabama’s school fragmentation happened after integration – the state already had a hodgepodge of state and local systems before the 1960s, though the numbers grew after integration.
Our neighbor to the south, Florida, also has 67 counties. And it has 69 school systems, one for each county and one each for two university-affiliated schools.
Most parents of school-aged kids were born well after desegregation and its political aftermath. But many of them have worked hard, within the existing system, to get their kids into a school system that produces good results. So there’s likely to be significant on-the-ground resistance in communities where McClammy’s proposed board suggests a closing.
And then there are districts like the one in Piedmont, a small-town system with only 1,150 students that was recently named one of the most cost-efficient districts in the country by the Center for American Progress.
“I don’t think consolidation would go over well here,” said Michael Ingram, a member of the Piedmont Board of Education. Piedmont’s student body has a higher poverty rate than the state average, but the system has managed to provide free laptops and wireless Internet to its students.
“I’m not sure we would be able to do some of the things we’ve done in a bigger system,” Ingram said.
Of course, there’s no indication that a school consolidation board would even recommend closing Piedmont's district.
McClammy said he’s aware that many communities would resist consolidation, but he thinks consolidation advocates should forge ahead.
“If you tried to do this in Jefferson County, this would mean war, politically speaking,” he said. “But if we’re serious about cutting (the budget), there shouldn’t be any sacred cows.”
A Teachable Moment is assistant metro editor Tim Lockette’s weekly look at schools. Contact Lockette at 256-235-3560.