Questions facing Brookesmith — and other small school districts

Brownwood Bulletin
Bob Contreras

Bob Contreras is the public relations director for the Brookesmith Independent School District

In Texas, and indeed across the country, many organizations are reorganizing so that they manufacture more products, provide more service, expend less money and earn more from their businesses.

Schools are no different. Schools are faced with the challenge of educating more students, achieving established state standards, many times with reduced or less qualified staff, on an income based on numbers of students served and the local tax base. What is the solution? Some point to consolidation, which they believe may result in “economy of scale.” In the school context, economy of scale results when a district can serve greater numbers at a lower cost per student… in theory, anyway.

How big is small? Is bigger necessarily better? Are small schools a thing of the past? Are larger schools more economical to run?

First, how big is small? The number varies greatly according to the country. In the United States, “small” equates to fewer than 400 students. Closer to home, using the “fewer than 400 students” as a guide, we see that Blanket, Brookesmith, May and Zephyr can all be considered “small schools.”

Is bigger necessarily better in terms of achievement? According to a 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science study of the relationship between school size and achievement of eigth graders in 51 countries, results varied. In Lebanon, South Africa, Bahrain, Indonesia and the Basque Country of Spain, larger school size and “higher math” attainment were positively correlated across a certain range of scores, after which increases in size were associated with declining performance. In other countries, there was a linear relationship between school size and performance. Larger schools had a positive relationship (higher achievement) in Ghana, Chile, Malaysia and Tunisia. Conversely, larger schools in England, the United States and Macedonia had a negative relationship (lower achievement). NICHE, an American company that runs a ranking and review site, rates Brookesmith ISD as a B-, among the best small schools in the county.

Are small schools a thing of the past? Hardly! A full 75 percent of Texas counties, 191 out of 254, are considered rural. These rural counties contain rural schools. Texas has no shortage of small schools!

Are larger schools more economical to run? Are they cost effective? It is commonly assumed and is confirmed that in some countries, cost savings can be realized in larger schools. Costs and cost-effectiveness, however, are not the same things. Research from the USA points to the beneficial effects of smaller class size on student attendance, including: reduced levels of dropout; teacher innovativeness; student activities; student behavior; school culture, and parental involvement. At the same time savings associated with school consolidation (i.e. the creation of larger schools) have not materialized.

‘Penalties’ (or diseconomies) of scale have replaced ‘economies’ of scale since large schools need more layers of support and administrative staff to handle increased bureaucratic demands. While costs per student enrolled can appear lower in larger schools, the costs per graduated student can be higher.

Small districts are facing difficult times. They can be inordinately affected by school finance laws, and methods or procedures of state accounting, or even temporary increases or decreases in enrollment.

Brown County has amazing schools. Small school districts face huge challenges. Brookesmith and other and other small districts are meeting the challenges and serving our students well.