Working Together to Stay Small, Get More Efficient

Last Updated: September 01, 2008

This article appeared in the September 2008 Rural Policy Matters

Can the operating costs of small schools be reduced — not by making them big through consolidation — but by inter-local cooperation among small schools and districts? The Western Maine Educational Collaborative (WMEC) says so, and it’s proving it.

Operating efficiently makes sense from an economic point of view. But it is important for other reasons as well. Inefficiency is one of the more subtle sources of educational inequity. A student attending a school that wastes money receives less educational value than a student attending a school that uses the same amount of money more effectively.
States officials often try to expand that little piece of truth into an argument that inefficiency, rather than school funding shortfalls or inequity, is the real problem.
We don’t buy that argument, but the fact remains that inefficiency is the enemy of equity.
And for all their academic advantages (and all the evidence that consolidation rarely reduces overall costs), rural schools face some economic disadvantages associated with small scale and rural location. Finding ways to overcome them is a matter of equity and necessity.
Collaborating to Save and Improve
That was a main goal when WMEC formed in 2006. It involves 10 districts serving 12,000 students in 43 schools sprawled across four counties. WMEC’s goal is “improving student performance by working together to ensure effective and efficient use of resources” and members collaborate on a variety of programs and services.
WMEC Executive Director, Mona Baker, says the Collaborative enables rural districts to consolidate their efforts and retain their governance and institutions. “It’s all about increased communication between and among districts and considering together how we can do things cheaper and smarter.”
Members participate in joint purchasing arrangements for things like diesel fuel and milk as well as programs for professional and staff development. Importantly, they also coordinate joint arrangements for shared administrative personnel, including superintendents and directors of building maintenance, transportation services, adult education, and food services. Some members are using distance learning technologies to share faculty for high-cost, low-demand courses, like Advanced Topics in Chemistry.
These arrangements have saved the districts hundreds of thousands of dollars — $300,000 over the last two years on a reading initiative along, according to Baker — and enabled them to improve their offerings.
Keeping it Place-Specific
The effort is successful, not because member districts are similar — they are not, but because they share a commitment to core values and they maintain autonomy in implementation.
“There are these ten districts. They opt in or opt out of specific collaborations based on what meets their local needs,” says Baker. “It’s not a lockstep thing where everyone has to do the same thing.”
WMEC is a separate non-profit corporation financed by an inter-local agreement among the member districts. Districts pay $4.00 this year per student, plus fees, where applicable, for certain services that the local district opts into. It is governed by the members who meet at least five times a year to discuss needs and make plans.
Across the country there are spirited efforts to break large urban schools into smaller learning communities in order to fabricate the advantages of smallness. Ironically, there are also spirited efforts to consolidate small rural schools in many states because they are considered inefficient. Instead, it makes more sense to help small schools fabricate economies of scale without sacrificing the real advantages of smallness. WMEC is one model for doing so.
View the list of WMEC Collaborative Initiatives and their cost savings.
Learn more about WMEC it its brochure.

Read more from the September 2008
Rural Policy Matters.