In the years since the Great Recession, more superintendents have confronted dwindling resources and tense arguments over how to allocate them. And in a rapidly increasing number of districts, leaders face fights to keep wealthier communities from splintering off entirely.
School districts have always restructured, usually because of significant shifts in student enrollment or consolidations. Maine alone has seen eight new splinter districts and one continuing secession fight, as communities unwind district consolidations from 2007 and the 1960s. But breakaways might happen more often as shrinking district budgets meet shifting student populations.
“When state resources get more scarce, you see less equalization. You see bigger divides open up ... and you might have a sharper motivation for a property-wealthy enclave to put up a fence,” said Zahava Stadler, a researcher with the nonprofit group EdBuild and the author of a new report on school district splintering.
Over the past two calendar years, 27 communities in 13 states across the country began trying to secede from their districts, the EdBuild report found. Ten of those communities successfully became new districts, and the rest are locked in ongoing battles, most spilling into the courts and state legislatures.
That’s a sharp uptick. In a 2017 study of district secessions, EdBuild found that while 63 communities successfully broke away to form new districts from 2000 to 2017, 10 more have seceded in the two years since.
In some communities, the separations raise ugly questions about the growth of economic and racial segregation between the new districts and those left behind.
“If we’re going to look at the effects, we can see the motivations” for some communities to break away, Stadler said. “We can say that a clear majority of districts that successfully seceded have higher median household income, higher median property values, lower rates of student poverty, lower rates of nonwhite students, and clearly higher rates of local tax dollars for their school district than the districts that they are leaving behind,” Stadler said. “I mean, if you’re going to wind up with less-diverse classrooms and keeping more local money for [the schools in the new district] than they had before [the break-up], it’s not a mystery as to why this occurred.
Some recent secession attempts, like one in Gardendale, Ala., have been thwarted by legal interventions meant to counter a history of racial segregation in the area. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that districts under a desegregation order cannot split if doing so would increase segregation. But the number of districts under active desegregation orders has waned for decades.
Louisiana’s 40,500-student East Baton Rouge Parish district is one school system that has experienced that sort of resegregation. Since courts lifted a federal school desegregation order in 2003, three communities have broken away from the district, leaving the remaining district about $15 million poorer and nearly 90 percent nonwhite as of 2017. (Only one of the three new districts is majority white.) Since 2013, the district has been fighting to prevent another wealthy community, St. George, from leaving as well.
“It would reduce the per-capita spending for our population, devastatingly so,” said M.E. Cormier, an East Baton Rouge graduate and the mother of an incoming kindergartner, who helped lead a successful fight to prevent St. George’s first secession attempt in 2013.
East Baton Rouge Superintendent Warren Drake has made “significant and specific plans for the East Baton Rouge Parish to improve infrastructure and to strengthen the school district as a whole,” Cormier noted, “but I don’t believe that any of that movement has delayed any of the motivation to leave for supporters of St. George.”
East Baton Rouge advocates stopped the 2013 secession effort using massive door-to-door canvassing to explain how the withdrawal would affect students. This year, St. George secession advocates changed tack, trying to incorporate as a new city and effectively remove property-tax revenue from the East Baton Rouge district. That proposal will go to the polls this October, though if St. George becomes its own city, it would still face multiple statewide and local votes to create a new district.
State and district policies can often prevent or encourage these fights before they start. For example, before 2018, Indiana law required judges to form county committees to create a new district plan and mandated a multistep process before a secession proposal could be presented to the state board of education. In December, in response to requests from communities, the board issued a memo allowing groups to propose new districts directly to the board, leading to new secession requests.
Wisconsin requires all proposals for new districts to take into account potential effects on school funding and racial and socioeconomic diversity. And Texas requires communities from the existing district and the proposed new one to each vote to approve the split, preventing wealthier communities from unilaterally splitting from poorer ones.
Striking a Balance
In southwestern Montana, the 8,000-student K-12 Helena district had for years enrolled high school students from East Helena, a neighboring K-8 district about 15 minutes away. Recently, a growing student population gave East Helena enough students to build its own high school. The city passed a bond to build its own high school for an expected 600 students and change into a K-12 district.
Unlike some of the other districts, Helena and East Helena have few racial differences; more than 9 in 10 students in both districts are white. But the poverty rate is 10 percentage points higher in Helena primary schools than in East Helena primary schools. That means the poverty rate in Helena High School—now 8.3 percent—would likely rise.
“Part of the decision that parents are making now is, do we send our kid to a new home school in our neighborhood that’s going to be about 600 students, versus sending our kid to the big comprehensive high school,” said Helena Superintendent Tyler Ream. “The large comprehensive comes with bigger classes, ... but it also comes with the offerings, the [Advanced Placement], the dualcredit offerings. I think what’s been taking place across the nation for decades now is that ebb and flow from big to small [schools], or trying to make big feel small.”
Helena High will drop from 1,500 to 1,100 students after the transition, and Ream said the district is trying to find ways to keep staff, including changing schedules and asking teachers to “float” among several schools.
“We don’t want to pare down any of our offerings but we will have to get creative in terms of how we provide them,” Ream said. “It’s realistic I think in our near future that a teacher could teach one specific course but maybe not at one specific school ... because we might not have the total student capacity to command one full [teacher] to that subject area.”
The break with East Helena has been amicable, if a bit awkward, Ream said. Generations of East Helena students have attended Helena High School—and will continue to go there, as the new East Helena school will open only one grade a year beginning in 2020. Helena will also continue to accept East Helena students as transfers, though East Helena has not yet committed to do the same.
The EdBuild report suggests district leaders can encourage active engagement of all parents and communities to prevent any one area from dominating.
“District leaders can arm local activists with information by saying: ‘Here’s what it would really do to us. Here’s what it would do to our classrooms, here’s what it would do to our budgets,’ ” Stadler said. “That’s the kind of thing where the passion can come from the community, and the data and the evidence can come from the district. And together, that’s a very powerful combination.”
It’s also important for district and school leaders to work to bring different parts of their communities together and to explain their reasons for balancing resources among different schools, she said.
Cormier agreed. “I think that our public school system unfortunately gets a really bad rap mostly by people who’ve actually never attended a public school,” she said. “I think that if people were to actually walk into our schools and take a tour, they would have a new perspective and a new opinion that they’ve never had before.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2019 edition of Education Week as Wealthier Enclaves Breaking Away From School Districts