Should California’s Smallest School Districts Consolidate?

To save money, California should raise to 100 the minimum number of students to qualify as a school district, according to a study issued May 2 by the Legislative Analyst’s office.

As part of the budget for the current fiscal year, the analyst was required to study whether consolidation of smaller school districts into larger ones would improve student performance and reduce costs.

“Neither the academic research nor our own review offers persuasive evidence that consolidating small districts would necessarily result in substantial savings or notably better outcomes for students,” the assessment concludes.

However, the analyst points out that “very small” school districts – those with students fewer than 100 – do have higher costs.

And because there are so few pupils, the performance of their students can’t be adequately assessed statistically through state testing.

About 40 percent of California’s nearly 1,000 school districts are considered “small” because they educate 1,000 students or less.

Ten percent of the districts have 100 or fewer pupils. They are “very small.”

State law allows a minimum of six students in an elementary school district and 11 in a high school or unified district.

Just over one fourth of all school districts consist of just one school.

There are 75 of the state’s 9,900 schools with fewer than 20 students. Forty of those schools have fewer than 10 students.

According to the analyst, nearly 75 percent of California school districts have less than 5,000 students. However, those 688 districts represent only 15 percent of the roughly 6.2 million students in public schools.

Conversely, California’s 15 largest districts – more than 40,000 students each –educate one-fourth of the state’s pupils. Los Angeles Unified represents 10 percent of that amount.

The state has encouraged consolidation of districts in the past.

Fifty years ago, there were 2,091 districts in the state. Today, there are 963.

Among the analyst’s findings are that operating costs are higher for districts with 1,000 students or less.

However, academic performance isn’t necessarily poorer for students in a small district.

“While our review of California student performance data and the relevant academic literature indicates some correlation between district size and student outcomes, the evidence does not show especially strong support for the assumption that small districts inherently are worse for students,” the analyst writes.

“However, we are concerned that state and federal accountability systems cannot draw meaningful conclusions about student performance in very small school districts.”

Small districts also don’t have incentives to consolidate because they are paid “substantially” more money per student than larger districts.

There are 144 districts that receive a “small school supplement” from the state – almost $40 million statewide.

Federal “Small Rural Schools Achievement Fund” money is received by 281 schools, a total of $5.6 million statewide.

Overall, the analyst suggests ending the fiscal incentives to stay small but allowing localities – not the state – to continue to decide how best to structure their school district.

Because small districts “spend notably larger proportions of their budgets on overhead costs and are difficult to hold accountable for student performance,” the analyst recommends the minimum attendance threshold for all districts be set at 100 pupils.

“We believe this still is an extremely low threshold and the state could certainly consider a higher minimum requirement,” the analyst says.

But simply by moving the minimum to 100, would eliminate one in 10 existing districts, the analyst notes.



Filed under: Budget and Economy


  1. Yes, there should be consolidation but into Unified Districts not necessarily smaller districts. The last time we had a major effort to unify districts was in the late 1960’s from a bill authored by Speaker Jesse Unruh. In those years the state gave districts an extra $30 per ADA if they would unify. It led to almost 1000 districs in the state being consolidated.

    Give the local agencies a chance to figure out the best boundaries for unification but require only unified districts. It will reduce costs, make the system of funding schools simpler and correct a major problem with articulation between elementary feeder districts.

    Comment by Ken Hall — 5.02.2011 @ 7:55 pm

  2. A key reason many of these districts don’t consolidate is the very rational fear that in tight fiscal times their local school will be closed.

    Comment by Teri Burns — 5.03.2011 @ 12:47 pm

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