Dollars and Sense

Barbara Kent Lawrence
January 1, 2002

Table of Contents
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Costs to a Community of Losing a School 15
Economic Vitality 15
Community Cohesion 16
Civic Participation 17
Strategies for Strengthening Small Schools 17
New Highways 17
Partnerships and Shared Use of Facilities 17
Can Small Schools Be Constructed Cost Effectively? 18
Finding an Answer 18
Costs for All Schools 19
Costs for Reasonably Sized Schools 19
Discussion 20
Conclusion 21
References 22
Appendix 1 28
Financing Capital Costs 28
Appendix 2 28
House Bill 1440 (Maryland) 28
Appendix 3 30
Methodology 30
Table 1: Smaller as Compared to Larger Schools 30
Appendix 4 31
An Examination of the Relative Cost of New School Buildings
by Type and by Enrollment 31
Table 2: Cost of Constructing New Schools by Size Category 31
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Figures
Figure 1: School Districts and Small School Trends:
Historical Data, 1937-1997 2
Figure 2: School and School District Size:
Historical Data, 1929-1996 3
Figure 3: Incidence of Crime and Violence
by Size of School 9
Figure 4: The Cost of Busing
U.S. Public School Transportation Costs:
Constant Dollars ?95, 1931-1996 14
Figure 5: Transportation Costs Escalate with
Organizational Size: Historical Data, 1929-1996 14
Figure 6: Data for 489 Schools in Study Database 18
Figure 7: Data for 145 Reasonably Sized Schools 19
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Executive Summary
Even though people may appreciate the benefits of
small schools, too many think that the cost of such
schools is prohibitive. To answer their concerns,
Dollars & Sense summarizes research on the educational
and social benefits of small schools and the negative
effects of large schools on students, teachers, and members
of the community, as well as the ?diseconomies of scale?
inherent in large schools. As the research shows, measuring
the cost of education by graduates rather than by all
students who go through the system suggests that small
schools are a wise investment.
In addition, Dollars & Sense answers two fundamental
questions: can small schools be built cost effectively, and
has anyone done so? Using data drawn from 489 schools
submitted to design competitions in 1990-2001, Dollars &
Sense answers both questions with a resounding yes,
demonstrating that small schools are not prohibitively
expensive. Investing tax dollars in small schools does
make sense.
D o l l a r s & S e n s e : T h e C o s t E f f e c t i v e n e s s o f S m a l l S c h o o l s
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D o l l a r s & S e n s e : T h e C o s t E f f e c t i v e n e s s o f S m a l l S c h o o l s
Introduction
Dollars & Sense is an introduction to issues
relating to school facilities that face school
board members, parents, teachers, students,
school administrators, policy-makers, community
members, and taxpayers. Experience and research indicate
that good small schools serve students, and those who
care about them, better than large schools. Many decision-
makers, however, are reluctant to embrace small
schools for fear that they are not economical and place an
unnecessarily heavy burden on taxpayers. This report will
show that there are many economic arguments in support
of small schools, and that it is fiscally responsible to spend
school construction dollars on small school facilities. The
analysis is timely, because the current school construction
boom presents a matchless opportunity to create small
school facilities, while, at the same time, maintaining
fiscal responsibility. This report is a summary of the best
information currently available on the cost effectiveness
of small schools. It is our intention that additional
research based on a larger database and accompanied by
an integrated and comprehensive guide for the planning,
design, and maintenance of small school facilities, will
supplement this first report.
Note: There are many good sources for the topics covered in
this report in the accompanying reference list.
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Setting the Context
The Loss of Small Schools
Districts have been closing small schools for
decades. Why? The answer lies in a coincidence
of events and policy fueled by the prevalent
American belief that ?bigger is better.? Reacting to the
launching of Sputnik on October 4, 1957, many
Americans felt that small schools must be enlarged to
offer the math and science needed to meet the challenge
of Soviet technological supremacy. The climate of the
baby boom years and the success of big business made
school administrators eager to apply business methods to
education. People were ready to be influenced by James
Bryant Conant, a former chemistry professor and president
of Harvard University, whose book The American
High School Today, published in November of 1958,
argued for schools with at least 100 students per graduating
class and guidance counselors with responsibility for
250 or more students.
Conant argued that only larger schools could offer
competitive high-level courses, particularly in math and
science, at an acceptable cost. Stating, ?I am convinced
small high schools can be satisfactory only at exorbitant
expense,? Conant said the first priority for many states
should be the ?elimination of the small high school by
district reorganization,? also known as consolidation
(Conant, 1958, p. 37-38). Borrowing from the strategies
of business, educators and policy-makers suggested that
?economies of scale? would offset the expense of offering
students advanced-level opportunities and would also
justify closing small, supposedly outdated schools. It is
interesting to note that although Conant has been credited
or blamed for the move to close small high schools,
by today?s standards the schools of 400 to 500 students
that he advocated would be considered small.
Coincidentally, at the same time, state and federal
money was being used to build a system of highways and
pave secondary roads, making it easier to bring students
from a large geographic area to a centralized and in
Conant?s terminology, ?comprehensive? high school.
In addition, the migration of people from rural to urban
areas seemed to require closing small schools in districts
suffering depopulation.
Although many communities fought the consolidation
of their schools, more capitulated or accepted what they
were told was in the national interest, even if it did not
seem to be in the local interest. Nevertheless, both dis-
U.S. school districts Elementary schools with one teacher
1937-38
1939-40
1945-46
1949-50
1953-54
1955-56
1959-60
1963-64
1967-68
1970-71
1975-76
1980-81
1983-84
1987-88
1991-92
1995-96
1996-97
140,000
120,000
100,000
80,000
60,000
40,000
20,000
0
Count
Figure 1 - School Districts and Small School Trends: Historical Data, 1937-1997
Source: Killeen and Sipple, 2000
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tricts and schools were
closed. ?In 1930, there
were more than 262,000
public schools, compared
with around 91,000
today? (U.S. Department
of Education, 2001, p. 1).
Put another way, ?Since
1940 the number of
public schools in the
U.S. has declined by 69
percent despite a 70
percent increase in population?
(Bailey, 2000, p. 2) and ?the number of school
districts has declined since 1900 by an almost unbelievable
90 percent? (Howley & Bickel, 2001). The student
population has grown, from just under 24 million in
1947-48 to a record 53.1 million enrolled in the nation?s
schools in the fall of 2001 (Lyons, 2000, p. 9, 10, 17).
High school enrollment ?climbed from 12.5 million in
1990 to 14.8 million in 2000,? and is expected to continue
to grow, peaking in 2002 at 15.9 million (Sack,
2001, p. 15).
Current Trends: Building Bigger Schools
One consequence of consolidation is that ?[s]ince 1940
the size of the average U.S. school district has risen from
217 to 2,627 [students], and the size of the average school
has risen from 127 to 653? (Walberg, 1994; Ehrich,
2001). From 1982-83 to 1998-99, elementary schools grew
from an average of 399 students to an average of 478
(U.S. Department of Education, 2000). These figures,
however, are low because they include new alternative
schools, which tend to be small. The increase just
between 1988-89 and 1998-99 averaged 55 students
?and in that same period, the number of high schools with
more than 1,500 students doubled. In the past 50 years,
the percentage of secondary schools enrolling more than
1,000 students has grown from 7 to 25 percent? (Klonsky,
2002, p. 1). Although there are encouraging signs that
people are beginning to recognize the problems inherent
in big schools, in most places the trend to build larger and
larger schools continues. The problem of size is more pronounced
in some states than in others. In California and
Florida, for example, the average high school has more
than 1,400 students; six other states average over 1,000
students per high school; and five others average over
900 per high school (NCES, 2000; Agron, 2001, p. 26).
Children per school Children per school district
Per Pupil
3000
2500
2000
1500
1000
500
0
1929-30
1937-38
1949-50
1959-60
1967-68
1975-76
1980-81
1983-84
1986-87
1988-89
1990-91
1992-93
1993-94
1995-96
Figure 2 - School and School District Size: Historical Data, 1929-1996
?Since 1940 the
size of the average
U.S. school district
has risen from 217
to 2,627 [students],
and the size of the
average school
has risen from
127 to 653.?
Source: Killeen and Sipple, 2000
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Although no source is completely accurate, government
reports and other studies concur that too many of the
nation?s school facilities are in critical condition. In
2000, the National Center for Education Statistics estimated
that it would take $112 billion to bring America?s
schools up to good condition, while the National
Education Association estimated the total need at $322
billion (NCES, 2000; NEA, 2001). Unfortunately,
because few states have accurate, current assessments of
the condition of school facilities, it is likely that no one
has a clear idea of the true needs for repairs, renovations,
and new schools. What is clear is that districts are spending
more on construction and renovation: in 2000 ?a
record $21.5 billion in school construction [was] followed
by another record of $26.8 billion worth of school construction?
in 2001 (Agron, 2001 and 2002, p. 24). A
study by the United States General Accounting Office
reported that construction expenditures grew 39 percent
between 1990 and 1997, while enrollment grew
12 percent during that same period (GAO, 2000, p. 6).
This level of construction expenditure creates an unparalleled
opportunity for school districts to re-think the
issue of school size. Unfortunately, much of the money is
allocated for building large new schools rather than small
ones, and for new construction rather than renovation
and additions. This is an important moment, full of both
opportunity and peril, because schools built today will
structure education for the next 50 to 75 years or longer.
State Policies that Promote Large Schools
In some states, even if local leaders are inclined
to build smaller schools, state policy governing
maintenance, renovation, and construction of school
facilities promotes consolidation and larger schools.
Minimum Number of Students
Some states require specific minimum enrollments
in order for a district to qualify for funding for school
facilities. In Kentucky, for example, the School Facilities
Construction Commission requires that an elementary
school must have 300 or more students, a middle school
400 or more students, and a high school 500 or more
students to be eligible for 100 percent state participation
in capital projects. In Ohio, a school must have no fewer
than 350 students to receive its full share of state
construction funding, and, to qualify in West Virginia,
elementary schools must have 300 students, middle
schools must have 450, and four-year high schools must
have 800 students. Districts in Georgia must show both
a 1.5 percent growth in the student population and a
projection of at least 65 additional students per year in
order to be eligible for money from the growth fund, and
schools with fewer than 450 students are not eligible for
funding for music and art. In other states, schools with
fewer than a specified number of students are ineligible
for full-size athletic facilities and must make do with a
half-size basketball court (Lawrence, 2001, p. 1).
Contradictory Policy
In some states, policy is contradictory. For example,
in Guidelines on Facilities Planning, the North
Carolina Department of Education recommends
?elementary schools ranging from 450 to 700 students,
middle schools from 600 to 800 students, and high
schools ranging from 800 to 1200 students...The
Board also believes that schools of this size can offer
the most efficient use of space and personnel at a
reasonable cost per student, without losing personal
contact with and among students.?
The following statement, however, appears elsewhere
in the same publication:
?American school leadership continues to build
large public schools in pursuit of cost effectiveness
and curriculum diversity, but may be sacrificing
positive school culture and meaningful education
reform in the process (Conway, 1994). The issue
of school size, as it relates to school climate,
safety, and order, has been researched extensively
over more than five decades, with remarkable
consistency in the findings. Most researchers have
determined a measurable positive relationship of
smaller school size to safety, climate, and order.
Some research has controlled for ?ruralness? and
revealed that it is the smallness of the school,
regardless of setting, that is beneficial to the
student. There is no universal agreement on
the ideal size for schools. What is clear from
the research, however, is the positive relationship
between smaller school size and a number of
variables associated with school climate and order.
Researchers on school size indicate ideal school
sizes for improved safety and violence reduction
to be: Elementary: 300-400, Middle: 300-600,
High: 400-800? (North Carolina Department
of Public Instruction, 2000, p. 4, 40).
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Excessive Acreage Requirements
Policy and guidelines setting required acreage for existing
and new schools also pressure districts to close small facilities
and build consolidated schools in outlying areas.
Many states follow the Council of Educational Facilities
Planners International (CEFPI) guidelines. CEFPI is considering
revising these guidelines because, as the National
Trust for Historic Preservation points out, requirements
for excessive acreage force districts to locate schools
outside of towns and contribute to sprawl (Beaumont &
Pianca, 2000, p. 16-17). As of this writing, however,
CEFPI still suggests one acre for every 100 students in
addition to at least ten acres of land for elementary
schools, 20 acres plus for middle schools, and 30 acres
plus for high schools. Many states exceed even these
generous guidelines in setting either suggested or required
acreage for new and existing schools.
Discouraging Renovation and Maintenance
Americans? cultural preference for all that is new and big
puts at risk older schools, which tend to be smaller.
Americans are trained by a culture of consumerism to
think that not only is bigger better, but that just being
?new? is a virtue. Even people who complain that, ?they
don?t build ?em like they used to,? may ignore the fact
that schools built in the ?good old days? at the turn of
the twentieth century were intended as public monuments
and built to last much longer than those constructed
mid-century.
According to Hansen
(1992): ?Forty-three
percent [of schools]
were built during the
1950s-1960s era of
cheap energy inefficient
construction to meet
baby boom needs. Often
non-durable, they were
not intended to last
more than 30 years?
(p. 8). Unfortunately, much of the repair and renovation
done during the middle of the 20th century was insensitive
to the original design of older schools and also poorly
constructed with inferior materials. Most school facilities
built after 1950 were not as well constructed as those
built earlier, nor did they offer the amenities of high
ceilings, large windows, bright airy classrooms, and
graceful architecture. Furthermore, most were built on
slabs so it is much more difficult to change plumbing,
wiring, or heating systems
than it is to accomplish
similar renovations in
older buildings with full
basements or crawl spaces
(Yeater, personal communication,
July 9, 2002).
Many people point to the
average age of U.S. school
facilities, 42 years, as a
sign that they are in poor
condition, but that
conclusion does not
necessarily follow.
Functional age, which reflects how the building was
originally constructed and how it has been maintained
and renovated over the years, is a better indicator of a
building?s condition. Maintenance is key, and in too
many districts money for maintenance is the largest
budget item over which school board members and the
superintendent have decision-making power. Other
expenses, including salaries, textbooks, and transportation,
are not optional?but maintenance can be, and is too
often deferred (Rubman, 2000, p. 1-2; Lawrence, in press).
Deferring routine preventive maintenance, as many people
know from experience with their own houses, can lead to
very serious and expensive problems.
Proper maintenance is important because many older
schools, anchored in their communities, are also small
schools, which may become vulnerable to closing if they
are not kept in good repair. If state policy limits renovation
to a percentage of the cost of building a new facility,
deferred maintenance can even force the closing of a
school. For example, Ohio requires that ?[i]f the cost of
renovating a school exceeds two-thirds of the costs of
building a new one, the school district should build new.?
The percentage is 50 in Massachusetts, 60 in Minnesota,
and 80 in Washington State (Beaumont & Pianca, 2000,
p. 18). In Ohio, it is possible to obtain a waiver from this
policy, but waivers are not widely sought. In Arkansas, as
a ?rule of thumb,? if the cost of renovation exceeds 50
percent of the cost of new construction and the existing
building is older than 50 years, state officials recommend
building a new facility. Other states, including Arizona
and Georgia, permit renovation only once, and
Pennsylvania limits renovation projects to correct a
deficiency to once every 20 years (Lawrence, 2001, p. 1).
As recently as 1997, ?[h]istoric schools in Georgia were
Proper maintenance
is important because
many older schools,
anchored in their
communities, are
also small schools,
which may become
vulnerable to closing
if they are not kept
in good repair.
Americans? cultural
preference for all
that is new and big
puts at risk older
schools, which tend
to be smaller.
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ineligible for state funds because they were presumed to
be obsolete? (Beaumont & Pianca, 2000, p. 44; Rubman,
2000, p. 3). Many of the schools affected by these policies
are small.
School board members and administrators may be
inclined to support these policies. They may think that
renovation is a poor investment, because they don?t
recognize the value of the existing structure and
infrastructure and they don?t accurately estimate the costs
of new construction. ?Hidden costs? for new buildings
may include significant expenses such as ?water and sewer
line extensions, student transportation, and road work?
(Beaumont & Pianca, 2000, p. 18). Savings that could be
gained by continuing to
use existing services (and
the value of even the
shell of a facility) are
often omitted from the
equation when school
boards consider
renovation versus new
construction. The
benefits of renovating a
school instead of
building a new one go
beyond the purely economic. School planners may also
ignore the fact that older schools have significant historic
and social value as well as aesthetic appeal for the
communities they serve. Existing policies, and the
administrators interpreting them, have tended to dismiss
concerns for historic, aesthetic, social, and community
values as irrelevant sentimentality; but they are far from
that. Community identity in and with the local school
has, for instance, been shown to be a strong influence on
early school achievement (Bickel & Eagle, 2001).
State Policies: Signs of Change
There is a slight breeze of change fluttering through
the halls of some state capitols. Three states, for example,
have recently considered legislation that supports
small schools.
Florida
In 2000 the legislature of Florida passed Bill 235.2157,
?Small School Requirements.?
The Legislature finds that:
a) Florida?s schools are among the largest in
the nation.
b) Smaller schools provide benefits of reduced
discipline problems and crime, reduced truancy
and gang participation, reduced dropout rates,
improved teacher and student attitudes, improved
student self-perception, student academic
achievement equal to or superior to that of students
at larger schools, and increased parental
involvement.
c) Smaller schools can provide these benefits
while not increasing administrative and
construction costs.
The statute limits elementary schools to 500 students,
middle schools to 700 students, and high schools to 900
students, and requires that ?[b]eginning July 1, 2003, all
plans for new educational facilities to be constructed
within a school district and reflected in the 5-year school
district facilities work plan shall be plans for small
schools in order to promote increased learning and more
effective use of school facilities? (Florida Department of
Education, 2000, p. 40).
Maryland
Delegate David Rudolph, who is also an experienced educator,
submitted bills to the Maryland House of Delegates
in February of 2001 requiring the state to pay ten percent
over the maximum state allocation for construction of
schools in ?priority funding areas? meeting specific size
limits. Existing schools fulfilling the same requirements
would also be eligible for an additional ten percent for
renovation, modernization, or remodeling. (For the text
of this legislation, see Appendix 2).
The benefits of
renovating a school
instead of building
a new one go beyond
the purely economic.
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Vermont
Vermont has also recognized the merits of small schools
and has passed legislation that helps ensure their viability.
In 1998, a report by the Vermont Department of
Education found that small schools in Vermont are worth
?the investment because of the value they add to student
learning and community cohesion,? and suggested that
the legislature increase funding of its small schools
program, which it did (Vermont Department of
Education, 1998, p. 4).
Size Matters: What Is ?Small??
Many people think that an elementary school
enrolling 500 children is small. Elementary
schools might span grades K-8, K-7, K-6, K-5,
2-6, or 3-4. Is a school of 500 students in grades K-8 the
same size functionally as one that serves 500 children in
grade 3-4? Obviously not; the grades 3-4 school of 500
students (250 per grade) is much larger than the K-8
school (56 per grade). The recommendations in this
report use enrollment per
grade, not total enrollment,
as a guide.
Including a wider rather
than narrower grade span
configuration is a better
way to reap the advantages
of small schools.
Narrowing grade spans
and consolidating students
in centralized
schools has been used as a way to make schools larger, but
schools could also become smaller by widening grade
spans (see sidebar).
Making Schools Smaller with Reconfigured
Grade Spans
Imagine a district that houses 1,200 students in separate
buildings: a K-2 primary, 3-5 elementary, and a 6-8
middle school. Each enrolls 400 students, or 133 students
per grade. If, however, the same buildings were used to
house three K-8 schools, the reconfigured schools would
actually be smaller (400/9=44 students per grade).
Creating smaller schools, then, is easier than most educators
and policy-makers seem to realize.
Five simple principles, drawn from research literature, are
pertinent to the question of what size a school should be:| Elementary schools are, on average, already about half
the size of high schools. They should be even smaller.| There are social and academic liabilities to narrow
grade span configurations. Narrow configurations are
not advisable because they enroll more students per
grade than schools with wider configurations. (Ninth
grade academies, K-2 primary schools, and the like will
not qualify as ?small.?)| The recommendations given concern the upper limits
of small size, not ?optimal sizes for a small school.? 1| The smallest schools should exist in the poorest
communities.| One size does not fit all.
Based on these principles, ideal upper limits of ?small size?
for schools with conventionally wide grade spans are as
follows:| High schools (9-12): 75 students per grade level
(300 total enrollment)| Middle schools (5-8): 50 students per grade level
(200 total enrollment)| Elementary schools (1-8): 25 students per grade level
(200 total enrollment)| Elementary schools (1-6): 25 students per grade level
(150 total enrollment).
Can good schools be smaller than what is suggested here?
Certainly. In fact, there should be more public high
schools enrolling 200 students and more elementary
schools enrolling 100 students.
11,000 is a large school, and so upper limits divide large from too large
and must not be read as recommended sizes or optimal size.
Is a school of 500
students in grades
K-8 the same size
functionally as one
that serves 500
children in grade 3-4?
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Why Small Schools Make Sense
The trend toward building larger schools has
occurred despite a surge of research and experience
showing that small schools are better places
in which to educate children.
Research Showing the Benefits of Small Schools
Researcher Tom Gregory from Indiana University points
out that it has been over 30 years since the last study
recommended large schools; nevertheless, districts have
continued to build them (Gregory, 2000). The benefits
of small schools have been written about so widely that
this section is limited to a summary of the argument. Many
excellent sources offer further details. (See, for example,
Cotton, Gregory, Nathan, Mitchell, and The Rural School
and Community Trust in the References section.)
The research about the value of smaller schools shows that
small schools are safer schools and better places for
students to work with adults who know them and whom
they trust (Barker & Gump, 1964; Wasley, 2000; Cotton,
2001). Small schools graduate a higher percentage of
students. Students drop out of small schools at lower rates
than they do from large schools, and more students who
graduate from small schools go on to post-secondary
education than do their counterparts who graduate from
Don?t Confuse Small Schools with ?Schools Within a School?
Many people realize that large schools are far from ideal places in which to teach and learn. Creating schools-within-a-school
(SWaS) is one strategy for reducing school size. It is appropriate only to make use of an existing large high school building; it is
not advisable to build a new facility so that it can be turned into SWaS. In more sparsely populated rural areas, a SWaS still draws
students from a wide geographic area, so that many of them travel long distances to and from school. Busing is expensive and affects
students and their families in many negative ways.
An alternate, beneficial strategy for using an existing large building is to reconfigure the grade span in the facility to include students
from kindergarten through 12th grade. In rural areas, drawing students from a wider age range will increase the pool, narrow the
geographic area in which they live, and cut their transportation time to and from school. In any area, there are many social and
pedagogical benefits to bringing students of all ages together, as well as benefits from making the school more accessible to the
community. The best SWaS will serve elementary, middle, and high school students within the same facility.
Another method of making the best of large facilities is to use them to house truly small schools and make the remaining space
available for use by the community during and after the school day. Facilities that once served as large consolidated high schools can
be leased to community agencies such as day care or senior care centers, health care centers for students, their families, and members
of the community, and to other business and recreational organizations (Lawrence, 2002a). Any district with declining enrollment
and excess space should consider this approach.
Emerging research (Valerie Lee and Mary Anne Raywid) suggests that it is difficult to create effective schools-within-a-school
(Raywid). If it is the most feasible solution, the district should be prepared to address certain challenges. First, a school-within-aschool
will likely have just one cafeteria, one gym, and one auditorium. As a result, it is important to ensure that students have
equal access to these and other specialized facilities. In particular, students who are not obviously gifted and talented must be given
access to facilities and opportunities to develop skills. (By contrast, this is not an issue in a truly small school in which all students
are needed and encouraged to participate in after school activities.) Second, districts must work to prevent the re-segregation and retracking
of high schools that has occurred in some SWaS (Lee). Third, schools-within-a-school should be completely autonomous if
they are to overcome the inflexibility that characterizes other large schools (Raywid, 1999; Wasley & Lear, 2001; Cotton, 2001).
The use of SWaS is expedient but it is only one of several strategies to reduce school size using existing large buildings. Further work
is needed to understand SWaS and to identify strategies for ensuring that they fulfill the promise of small schools. SWaS should not
be seen by the public as the best way to create small schools. It would be unfortunate if SWaS were not implemented effectively and
hence did not deliver the promises they make to reform education. The danger is that the public might conclude that ?small schools
don?t work,? although so much research shows that limiting size is the necessary first step in creating a truly good school.
D o l l a r s & S e n s e : T h e C o s t E f f e c t i v e n e s s o f S m a l l S c h o o l s
large schools. There is less violence in small schools, less
vandalism, a heightened sense of belonging, and better
attendance. Students earn higher grade point averages,
and more participate in extracurricular activities. There is
greater teacher satisfaction in small schools than there is
in large schools. Members
of the community
including parents and
other relatives are more
involved with the life of
small schools than are
their counterparts in large
schools?for the same
reasons as their children
(Cotton, 2001).
The U.S. Department of
Education?s report,
Violence and Discipline
Problems in U.S. Public
Schools: 1996-97, further
supports these conclusions:
100
90
80
70
60
50
40
30
20
10
0
No reported
incidents
Any reported
incidents
Serious violent
crime reported
Less serious
or non violent
crime reported
Less than 300 Students 300-999 Students 1000 or more Students
Incidence of Crime and Violence Seriousness of Crime Reported
Percent of Schools Reporting Source: National Center for Education Statistics. (
1998, March). FRSS 98-030. Violence and
Discipline Problems in U.S. Public Schools: 1996-97, 57. Washington, DC: U.S. Government
Printing Office. Available on the World Wide Web:
http://nces.ed.gov/pubs98/violence/98030004.html http://nces.ed.gov/pubs98/98030.pdf
The best small
schools offer an
environment where
teachers, students,
and parents see
themselves as part
of a community, and
deal with issues of
learning, diversity,
governance, and
building community
on an intimate level.
9
While 38 percent of small schools reported any incidents,
60 percent of medium-sized schools and 89
percent of large schools reported criminal incidents.
Serious violent crime was more likely to be reported by
the largest schools. One-third of schools with enrollments
of 1,000 or more reported at least one serious
violent crime, compared with four to nine percent in
schools with fewer than 1,000 students (1999, para. 5).
Comparing small schools (less than 300) with big schools
(1,000 or more), this report shows that big schools have:| 825 percent more violent crime| 270 percent more vandalism| 378 percent more theft and larceny| 394 percent more physical fights or attacks| 3,200 percent more robberies| 1,000 percent more weapons incidents
(Source: U.S. Department of Education, 1999).
Figure 3 - Incidence of Crime and Violence by Size of School
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D o l l a r s & S e n s e : T h e C o s t E f f e c t i v e n e s s o f S m a l l S c h o o l s
School size is arguably more important than either racial
makeup or class size, according to at least one analysis.
The Report Card on American Education (2001) noted that
higher outcomes on standardized tests, such as the SAT
and the ACT, as well as higher rates of graduation, may
be connected more with school size than with race
(LeFevre & Hederman, 2001, p. 3). The study also found
that school size, not classroom size, was the key to
student performance. Children performed better in
schools where the principal knew their names. Schools
with fewer than 300 students showed the best performance,
even though class size in these schools was higher
than the national average (RCAE, 1994). Similarly,
Bickel and Howley show that the effects of class size and
school size are different and to some extent separate. It is
true that smaller schools tend to have smaller class sizes.
But even when the influence of class size is included in
studies, the influence of school size remains strong.
District size also generally exerts a distinct influence
(Bickel & Howley, 2000).
How Small Schools Make a Difference
Small schools are not effective solely by virtue of being
small. Rather, small schools work best when they take
advantage of being small. The best small schools offer an
environment where teachers, students, and parents see
themselves as part of a community, and deal with issues
of learning, diversity, governance, and building community
on an intimate level.
At least one study spotlights the mechanisms by which
small schools become more effective than large schools.
Lee and Smith (1994) used data from the National
Educational Longitudinal Study (1994) to show that
small schools increased teacher collaboration and team
teaching. Lee and Smith report that ?large size and fragmented
human contact complicate the management of
[large] schools, which elevates the importance of formal
rules to regulate behavior. The environment in comprehensive
high schools is therefore less human? (p. 2).
The Met in Providence, Rhode Island: An Effective Small School
On June 9, 2000, 43 young people received their high school diplomas from the Metropolitan Career and Technical Center?
the first graduating class of a unique, state-funded high school in Providence, Rhode Island. Almost every high school can boast
a few success stories?students who have reached beyond what they or anyone else thought possible for them. But...no one
graduating from the Met has to feel like the ?exception.? Every Met graduate applied and was accepted to at least one college,
many receiving substantial financial aid packages (totaling $500,000)?an unusual circumstance for an urban school in which
70 percent of the students are children of parents whose education did not go beyond high school. All but 3 plan to enter college
in the fall. Interestingly, those who plan to defer are all from college-educated families.
Upon entering the Met, the class of 2000 looked very much like their peers in the Providence school system. In fact, the composition
of the graduating class is an almost perfect mirror of the Providence schools: 52 percent of the students qualify for free
lunch; 22 percent are African American, 38 percent Hispanic, and 38 percent white. School records reveal that the first cohort
included a substantial number of students who entered the Met two or three years behind grade level in skills. The group ranged
from students who had repeated or were about to repeat a grade to students assessed as gifted and talented, with most clustering
at the lower end of the achievement scale?getting by, receiving passing grades, yet not developing the skills necessary to succeed
in college and careers.
At the Met, these students found themselves in a school like no other they had ever attended, or probably even imagined.
Instead of being handed a schedule of classes, each student plots how s/he will make progress towards the school?s learning goals
in a quarterly meeting with a team including a teacher-advisor and a parent. Instead of spending their school day in classes, they
fashion independent projects through which to explore their interests and meet their learning goals. Instead of tests, they do
quarterly exhibitions of their work and accumulate a four-year portfolio. Instead of seeing six or seven different teachers and
groups of peers each day they spend intensive time with one advisor and advisory group (of 13-14 peers) and with adults in the
community who mentor them in an interest area.
The article above is an excerpt from ?Forty-three Valedictorians: Graduates of the Met Talk About Their Learning? by Adria
Steinberg. Reprinted with permission from the Big Picture Company.
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D o l l a r s & S e n s e : T h e C o s t E f f e c t i v e n e s s o f S m a l l S c h o o l s
Small schools are more
flexible and responsive,
because there is less
formal bureaucracy, and
because people are
known to each other.
People cannot connect
in the same ways in a
large school, because
intimacy is impossible
and students are anonymous.
There are many
examples of small
schools taking advantage
of their size to do
outstanding work with
students.
Reassessing ?Economies of Scale?
Many school leaders are willing to acknowledge
the research and examples cited in the opening
pages of this report. Nevertheless, the idea persists
that however beneficial small schools may be, they
are prohibitively expensive. This report finds a contrary
result by looking more closely at the supposed economies
of large schools. Adding up the costs and weighing them
against the benefits shows that small schools not only are
better places in which to educate children, but that large
schools themselves actually create significant diseconomies.
Cost per Graduate: Different Places, Similar Results
Researchers at New York University?s Institute for
Education and Social Policy examined 128 high schools
using school-by-school budget information for 1995-96.
They found that schools with fewer than 600 students
spent $7,628 per student annually, $1,410 more than was
spent by schools with more than 2,000 students. The cost
per graduate, however, at the small schools was $49,553,
slightly lower than the per-graduate cost of $49,578 at
larger schools. This is because dropout rates at the small
schools were much lower?64 percent of small-school
students graduated in four years compared with 51-56
percent of the students in large schools with 1,200-2,000 or
more students. Schools with fewer than 600 students had a
five percent drop out rate, while larger schools averaged a
13 percent loss (Steifel et al., 1998, p. iii-v). This finding is
particularly encouraging because the small schools served a
higher percentage of poor students and part-time specialeducation
students than did the large schools.
Using similar methodology to that used in the New York
study, researchers reported in 1999 that in Nebraska
small schools out-performed larger schools in both the
percentage of students graduating and the percentage
going on to post-secondary education. While the state
high school graduation rate averaged 85 percent, school
districts with 600-999 high school students had an average
of only 80 percent of their students graduate. For high
schools in districts with fewer than 100 students,
however, the graduation rate averaged 97 percent (Funk
& Bailey, 1999, p. 3). Researchers concluded that:
By two important measures of student outcome, smaller
schools in Nebraska generally perform better than larger
ones. The additional input cost of supporting students in
smaller schools needs to be weighed against their more
positive educational outcomes. The so-called inefficiencies
of small schools are greatly reduced when calculated
on the basis of cost per graduate, and virtually disappear
when the substantial social costs of non-graduates and
the societal impact of college-educated citizens are considered
(p. 3).
Measuring per graduate instead of per student cut the
annual cost differences between the smallest schools and
the larger ones in half.
Measuring expenses by the cost of educating a student
who graduates makes sense. Once it is mentioned, it
seems strange that for years schools have calculated costs
by counting students who drop out in the same measure
with students who graduate with marketable skills and/or
go on to postsecondary education. The term ?economies
of scale? was borrowed from the business world, so it
seems only fair to use a business-like method of measuring
results. No viable business would include the costs of
?producing? (educating) a ?product? (students) that
didn?t meet certain ?quality controls? (graduation
requirements) to measure its costs and rate of success in
the marketplace. Both the Nebraska study and its counterpart
in New York show that, measuring by the cost of
a graduate, small schools are good financial and educational
investments.
Adding up the costs
and weighing them
against the benefits
shows that small
schools not only are
better places in which
to educate children,
but that large schools
themselves actually
create significant
diseconomies.
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D o l l a r s & S e n s e : T h e C o s t E f f e c t i v e n e s s o f S m a l l S c h o o l s
The Social Costs of Large Schools
Students drop out of large schools at significantly greater
rates than they do out of small schools. The costs to
society for students who drop out of high school before
graduating are enormous?incalculable in terms of loss of
productivity and effects on the individual and members
of his or her family. Dropping out of high school influences
a person?s health, chances of being on welfare,
chances of getting a job, chances of going to prison, and
his or her relationships with family members. In 2000,
10.9 percent of young adults aged 16-24 were not in a
high school program and had not completed high school.
Although students of
low-income families are
six times more likely to
drop out of school, still
57 percent of dropouts
come from middleincome
families, which
represent about 60
percent of the population.
In 2000, 13.1
percent of African
American students
dropped out before completing
high school and
Hispanic students, particularly
those facing
language barriers, were
also more likely to drop
out than were white students (27.8 percent vs. 6.9
percent) (NCES, 2000).
Almost half of the people who are heads of households
receiving public assistance are dropouts. Dropouts are
almost three times more likely to receive assistance than
graduates who did not go on to college (17 percent to six
percent). This is expensive in human and monetary
terms: ?[I]n 1999, there were 2.7 million families on
welfare receiving an average monthly payment of $363
($4,344 per year), plus an average monthly allotment for
food stamps of $52 (for a family of four)? (Urban
Institute, USDA Food and Nutrition Services).
Dropping out of high school makes it likely that a person
will earn one-third less than his or her classmates who
graduate, and it is less likely the dropout will find work.
The U.S. Department of Education claims that in 1997,
?67 percent of recent high school completers not enrolled
in college were employed, compared with 45 percent of
recent high school dropouts? (U.S. Department of
Education, The Condition of Education, 1999). This is a
loss of productivity not only to the individual, but to the
society as a whole.
Success in high school is a necessary step toward earning
a college education. Educational attainment is associated
with social and physical health. People who have graduated
from college are twice as likely as those without a
high school diploma or GED to report being in excellent
or very good health, and parents who lack a high school
degree are more likely to be involved in incidents of
child abuse and neglect.
Perhaps the worst indictment of large schools with high
dropout rates is the fact that dropouts are three-and-onehalf
times as likely as high school graduates to be arrested
and 82 percent of inmates in the adult criminal justice
system are dropouts (Coalition for Juvenile Justice, 2001,
p. 10). On December 31, 2000 there were almost 1.4
million people in federal and state prisons, and in 1996
the average annual cost was $20,100 per prisoner (U.S.
Department of Justice). In contrast, in 1996-97 an
average of $5,923 was spent per student (U.S.
Department of Education, 1999, p. 1). This astounding
difference of $14,177 per year suggests the magnitude of
savings possible from small schools.
Operational Diseconomies of Large Schools
Administration
While it may be true that in small schools some costs
increase because they are spread out over fewer students,
research suggests that large schools require added tiers of
administration, more security people, and additional
maintenance and operations personnel. The reason for
this may be that in large schools more students feel alienated
from the life of the school and some vent their anger
in inappropriate or violent behavior. Therefore, it takes
more paid professionals per student to deal with the negative
effects of alienation in a large school than in a small
one, where people know each other better.
The increased cost of salaries, workspace, and other operational
expenses offsets expected savings from consolidating
small schools (Lee & Smith, 1996; Cotton, 1996,
2001). Cotton explains, ?the required disciplinary and
other administrative personnel of large schools are so
costly that, past a certain point, per pupil cost goes up?
Students drop out
of large schools at
significantly greater
rates than they do
out of small schools.
The costs to society
for students who
drop out of high
school before graduating
are enormous.
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D o l l a r s & S e n s e : T h e C o s t E f f e c t i v e n e s s o f S m a l l S c h o o l s
and keeps going up as
the school grows larger?
(Cotton, 2001, p. 19).
Not only is the higher
ratio of staff to students
a financial burden, it also
makes larger schools less
able to be flexible in
making decisions, reacting
to students as individuals,
and building a
successful community.
Guidance
Conant based his suggestion that guidance counselors
work with no fewer than 250 students on the premise
that specialized counselors would be more effective
than generalists, and could work with large numbers
of students. In comparison, however, with the system
of advisors used in many small private schools and some
small public schools, the system of guidance counselors
is both ineffective and expensive. A trained guidance
counselor who has responsibility for 250 or more students
cannot hope to know them as well as an advisor who
works with a small number of the same students every
day, sometimes throughout the student?s years at the
school. An advisor may suggest specialized intervention
if the student seems to need extra help with a medical,
psychological, or family problem, but his or her primary
function is as a student?s guide, mentor, and ombudsman.
The advisor system is not only more efficient, but also,
most importantly, it is more proactive and helpful to students
and their families than a system in which many
students get to know their guidance counselor only when
they get into trouble and too many get lost in the impersonal
culture of a large institution (Ellis, 1990; Lawrence,
1998, p. 261).
It takes more paid
professionals per
student to deal with
the negative effects
of alienation in a
large school than in a
small one, where
people know each
other better.
Transportation
Another diseconomy of scale in large schools involves the
transportation of students. Each school day in the United
States about 400,000 buses travel over 21 million miles
(Mitchell: 5). Often left out of a comparison of costs, transportation?
including fuel, buses, bus drivers, maintenance,
and time lost from the classroom?constitutes a powerful
disincentive to consolidation. In fact, ?[t]he cost (in constant
dollars) of transporting public school students has increased
every year since 1929, reaching nearly $10.4 billion in 1995-
96, double the amount spent 25 years earlier? (Strange, 2001,
p. 4). This growth exceeds the rate of increase in student
population, indicating that per pupil transportation costs (as
well as the total cost) are rising. Figured by cost per student,
transporting rural students is more than twice as expensive as
transporting urban students
and nearly 50 percent more
costly than busing students
in suburban districts (Killeen
& Sipple, 1997; Beaumont &
Pianca, 2000).
By contrast, when schools are
small, students frequently can
walk to and from school, or
reach it with a half-hour bus
trip (and their parents,
friends, and relatives also
have easy access). Expenses
for transportation are
thereby reduced and additional benefits ensue: more students
participate in after school activities and more people in the
community attend events, classes, and use the school facilities
on a regular basis. These connections strengthen student
achievement as well as community involvement in and
support for the school. Students who spend less time on the
bus are able to spend more time with family and friends, in
community activities, and even on homework. Involvement
with their families and communities is a no-cost benefit of
smaller schools that helps students to live better and richer
lives, and to connect more fully with their school as well
(Beaumont & Pianca, 2000; Howley & Howley, 2001).
Students who spend
less time on the bus
are able to spend
more time with
family and friends,
in community
activities, and even
on homework.
14
D o l l a r s & S e n s e : T h e C o s t E f f e c t i v e n e s s o f S m a l l S c h o o l s
Per Pupil
3000
2500
2000
1500
1000
500
0
Children per school Trans. expen per transported child
1929-30
1937-38
1949-50
1959-60
1967-68
1975-76
1980-81
1983-84
1986-87
1988-89
19790-91
1992-93
1993-94
1995-96
Figure 5 - Transportation Costs Escalate with Organizational Size:
Historical Data, 1929-1996
Percent of Total School Children
70
60
50
40
30
20
10
0
1931-32
1935-36
1939-40
1943-44
1947-48
1951-52
1955-56
1959-60
1963-64
1967-68
1971-72
1975-76
1979-80
1983-84
1987-88
1991-92
1995-96
Figure 4 - The Cost of Busing
U.S. Public School Transportation Costs: Constant Dollars ?95, 1931-1996
Source: Killeen & Sipple, 2000
Source: Killeen & Sipple, 2000
The Consolidation Blues: A Cautionary Tale
Two Southeastern Nebraska school districts, Diller and Odell, learned that school consolidation isn?t always the answer. Milford
Smith, former superintendent of Odell Public Schools, says that this scenario is being repeated all over Nebraska. He tells this story
to indicate that bigger schools are not always more efficient.
In 1998-99, Diller Community Schools had approximately 160 students in grades K-12. They had recently passed a bond issue for
remodeling and renovation and had closed a small elementary school due to general disrepair. Fiscal problems forced the school to
combine some elementary grades and eliminate the guidance counselor?s position.
Meanwhile, neighboring Odell Public Schools had an enrollment of approximately 190 K-12 students. They had also passed a bond
issue to do remodeling and replace a K-6 building. Declining enrollment forced Odell to enter into an agreement with Diller whereby
the eight-member football team played at Diller and the volleyball and basketball teams played at Odell.
When Nebraska state aid was reconfigured in 1997-98, Diller lost approximately $75,000 in one year. To make up for the shortage,
Diller would have had to combine elementary grades even further, cut back on supplies and texts, and use all of its cash reserves.
Even with these cutbacks, the district would still have to have over-ridden the limits on property taxes. Instead, Diller and Odell
decided to consolidate. They framed the merger as a means of enhancing educational opportunities, solving Diller?s fiscal problems,
and creating a new, larger district that would save money.
The new district bought out eight teachers and one part-time Superintendent and gave one Superintendent early retirement, for a
total of $122,000. The size of the new district meant a $1,500 increase in the base teacher salary, plus salary increases for teachers
with advanced degrees, for a total of $92,000. Salaries for the new principals and an increase in benefits for non-certified personnel
came to a total of $90,000. An additional 25,860 miles was added to the transportation cost of busing students. At a state rate of
$1.10 per mile, the added expense totaled $28,500. With more students in all grades, the curriculum needed to be aligned so that all
of the students were working from the same textbook, a cost of $50,000. New band uniforms and athletic equipment totaled
$27,000. The new district was big enough to move from an eight to an eleven-member football team, so the cost of improving the
athletic facilities came to $41,000. New locker rooms at the Odell high school and a new football program at Odell Junior High were
also added. Diller, however, did not want to lose all of their sports, so they enlarged their football field to an 11-member size, which
entailed acquiring more land and moving all of the light poles. Add in attorney fees, and the total spending above base year expenses
comes to approximately $460,000. For the 2001-02 school year, [and for each subsequent year] the expenditures above base year
expenses are estimated to be $230,000. So much for saving money.
The above article is an excerpt from the January 2002 issue of Rural Policy Matters, The Rural School and Community Trust?s
policy program newsletter.
15
D o l l a r s & S e n s e : T h e C o s t E f f e c t i v e n e s s o f S m a l l S c h o o l s
Costs to a Community of Losing a School
Often overlooked in the debate over school size
and consolidation are the many ways in which
schools nourish their local communities. Schools
contribute significantly to the vitality of local economies
and are essential to a community?s long-term development
potential. Schools foster community cohesion and
may increase civic participation. These considerations are
especially relevant to small towns weighing the costs and
benefits of consolidation, but they can also help guide
decisions about the size and location of urban and suburban
schools in order to maximize their value to surrounding
neighborhoods.
Economic Vitality
In small towns, the closure of a school often means the
loss of a major local employer with a significant annual
budget and payroll. Charles H. Sederberg of the
University of Minnesota examined six rural Minnesota
counties and found that the school district payroll
accounted for between four and nine percent of the total
county payroll. The purchasing power of both the school
districts and their employees was substantial. District
expenditures ranged from one to three percent of the
county?s total retail sales, while the take-home pay of
employees ranged from five to ten percent of total retail
sales. (See also Lyson, 2002, p. 21-24.)
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D o l l a r s & S e n s e : T h e C o s t E f f e c t i v e n e s s o f S m a l l S c h o o l s
Sederberg?s interviews with local bankers revealed that
most believed that school payroll and expenditures significantly
increased the amount of capital available for
loans, one of the many ways schools benefit local businesses.
The closure of a school can be particularly hard
on retail stores. Sales
from students and teachers
evaporate, while
parents do more of their
shopping near their children?s
new school. When
consolidation led to the
closure of the high school
in Lund, Nevada, retail
sales dropped eight
percent (Petkovich &
Ching, 1977). In North
Dakota, a survey of residents
in communities
that underwent consolidation
in the early 1990s
found that most residents
believed that retail sales,
as well as the number of
businesses in town, had
declined after the schools closed. Two of the towns lost
their local grocery stores, which had depended heavily on
school purchases (Sell et al., 1996).
The economic impact of school closure is often overlooked
not only by those towns considering consolidation
with another district, but by the many communities
abandoning older, centrally located schools in favor of
new facilities on the edge of town. Healthy, resilient
downtown areas succeed in part by serving a variety of
needs. They are centers of both commerce and community
life, combining private businesses with public services
like schools and post offices. When schools and other
services move out, downtown commerce invariably suffers
as more of the community?s activity shifts to the fringe.
Residential subdivisions and chain store sprawl soon
follow, eliminating open space and increasing traffic
congestion, and further undermining the community?s
historic center.
While good schools enhance property values, bad schools
and the lack of a neighborhood school cause property
values to decline. Without a local school, both small
towns and urban neighborhoods will be unable to attract
young families. Out-migration will increase. Researchers
William Dreier and Willis Goudy (1991) found that a
larger number of Midwestern towns that had lost their
schools to consolidation were losing population and
at a faster rate than those towns that had maintained
their local school. As population falls, home values drop
and businesses struggle. Once this spiral of disinvestment
and decline begins, it can be very difficult to turn around.
Conversely, good schools can drive economic development.
A community?s overall quality of life and the
quality of its public services are increasingly important
factors in attracting skilled workers and new investment.
A study of rural communities in South Carolina found
that those with better schools (as measured by educational
spending, class size, and test scores) experienced signifi-
cantly higher levels of job growth compared to those with
lower quality schools. The relationship between schools
and economic well-being was particularly strong for isolated
communities far from urban centers (Barkeley,
1996). High quality small schools can therefore be among
a community?s most important economic assets.
Community Cohesion
Schools anchor and unify communities by bringing
residents of all ages and backgrounds together for a
variety of activities and services. Schools often double
as community and cultural centers. They are places
where people can
watch or play sports,
attend a dance, take
in a play, hold meetings,
or organize
political forums.
Schools house numerous
services: branch
libraries, healthcare
centers, pools, playing
fields, and community
education classes.
Perhaps more than any
other institution,
schools are responsible
for a sense of community
and collective
identity. Local schools
educate generations of
friends, family, and
neighbors, providing a
shared experience and
In rural North
Dakota, researchers
surveyed residents
of eight small
towns. Those that
had lost their school
to consolidation
reported declining
participation in local
organizations and
activities. They also
rated their quality
of life significantly
lower than did residents
of communities
that had retained
their local schools.
A larger number of
Midwestern towns
that had lost their
schools to consolidation
were losing
population at a
faster rate than
those towns that
had maintained their
local school. As population
falls, home
values drop and
businesses struggle.
school board elections and to endorse school bonds and
increases in education spending. Declining participation
in school elections may have a spillover effect, reducing
overall voter turnout and more general citizen involvement
in government affairs. To the extent that serving
on a school board gives people the encouragement and
experience needed to run for other offices, the decline
in school board seats may be reducing the pool of citizens
seeking to serve in government.
Strategies for Strengthening Small Schools
New Highways
In 1957, America was just beginning to envision a
nation connected by superhighways. Today, the
United States is a nation connected by information
superhighways that transcend the limits of geography and
give people opportunities to communicate with others
they will never meet. Just as books and graphic images
allow Americans to communicate with people from other
nations and periods of history, so does the Internet.
Anyone can travel beyond the limits of geographic barriers
and boundaries. Students anywhere can learn through
special classes taught by experts in a college or university
miles or even oceans away, yet be monitored and supported
by local teachers, who might take the course for
re-certification credits. For other specialized classes, it
may make sense for districts to share teachers, having
them travel rather than busing large numbers of students.
Partnerships and Shared Use of Facilities
Forming partnerships with other organizations can create
a win-win situation. Many districts have found partners
within the community for public and private facilities
that can offer specialized programs for students. Other
schools lease space in facilities that are under-used,
including weekend and vacation time, to public and
private organizations, thereby sharing expenses. Smaller,
Safer, Saner Successful Schools, by Joe Nathan and Karen
Febey, offers 22 examples from around the country of
schools that have made partnerships with their communities
in ways that help each become more sustainable.
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D o l l a r s & S e n s e : T h e C o s t E f f e c t i v e n e s s o f S m a l l S c h o o l s
continuity from one generation to the next. Local schools
have much to do with a community?s sense of its own
identity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the affiliation
with a school?s sports teams.
For rural communities especially, the closure of the local
school can leave a gaping void. A case study of Lund,
Nevada found that one-third of all community activities
took place at the school (Petkovich & Ching, 1977).
In a study of the state?s small schools, the Vermont
Department of Education likewise concluded, ?In many
cases the small school is the only ?place? for the community
to come together? (1998, p. 4). One-quarter of the
towns studied had no grocery stores, restaurants, post
offices, or other places where residents could meet one
another. In rural North Dakota, researchers surveyed
residents of eight small towns. Those that had lost their
school to consolidation reported declining participation
in local organizations and activities. They also rated their
quality of life significantly lower than did residents of
communities that had retained their local schools (Sell
et al., 1996).
Civic Participation
One aspect of school consolidation rarely discussed, and
even more rarely studied, is the impact school closure has
on civic participation. As schools have consolidated and
grown larger, decision-making authority has been transferred
from local communities into the hands of state
officials and school administrators. Local citizens have
increasingly less say over such matters as curriculum,
educational standards, budgets, and teacher qualifications,
and are less and less involved in the day-to-day school
operations. Perhaps most significantly, consolidation has
dramatically reduced citizen participation in the governance
of the nation?s education system. Between 1930
and today, the number of people serving on school boards
fell from 1 million to fewer than 200,000 (while U.S.
population doubled).
Although there has been very little empirical research
to date, some believe that the loss of local citizen control
over schools has reduced civic participation more broadly.
Howley and Bickel point out, for example, that the loss
of 90 percent of school districts, ?has also removed a
proportionate number of citizens from the governance
of public schools. Public schools are therefore less ?public?
than ever? (Howley & Bickel, 2001). It is not unreasonable
to think that the closure of a local school would
make people more apathetic and less likely to vote in
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D o l l a r s & S e n s e : T h e C o s t E f f e c t i v e n e s s o f S m a l l S c h o o l s
Can Small Schools Be Constructed
Cost Effectively?
It is essential to answer the question: can small
schools be built cost effectively? With limited
resources available to cover a broad range of needs,
and with taxpayers demanding strict fiduciary responsibility,
school boards, superintendents, and facilities executives
must usually recommend the most economical
solutions to facilities needs. The definition of what is
economical, however, is most often determined through
generic formulas established in the real estate and construction
industries for a wide range of institutional,
commercial, and residential building types. In most cases,
the analysis is limited to the direct capital costs of real
estate and hard construction, and may be misleading.
Even though many people think that smaller schools are
better places in which to teach and learn, some districts
continue to build large schools simply because they fear
that small schools are more expensive to construct.
Conventional wisdom contends that small schools are
substantially more expensive to build than large schools,
but the evidence presented above challenges that belief.
Finding an Answer
In order to answer the questions: can small schools be
cost effective to construct and has anyone done so, the
authors assembled a database of 489 school facilities
projects constructed
between 1990 and 2001
that were submitted to
design competitions. The
analysis of this database
is a forerunner to the
more extensive work that
is needed, but it illustrates
that smaller
schools can be cost effective
to build. These 489
schools were designed to
house from 24 to 4,000
students?a very wide
range of sizes. The largest
was a high school, but the largest elementary school, in
fact, was designed to hold 3,000 students. Clearly, many
of these schools exceed the maximum sizes recommended
in this paper and by many professional organizations and
educational experts (see Appendix 3).
Figure 6 - Data for 489 Schools in Study Database
Cost per square foot: 109 (smaller half); 104 (larger half)
Cost per student: $15,709 (smaller half); $12,977 (larger half)
Square feet per student: 151 (smaller half); 131 (larger half)
Larger half are schools larger than median size of schools in study database.
Medians are: 93 students per grade for elementary schools, 267 students per grade for middle schools, and 375 students per grade for high schools.
Conventional
wisdom contends
that small schools
are substantially
more expensive to
build than large
schools, but the evidence
. . . challenges
that belief.
$120
$110
$100
$90
$80
$70
$60
$50
$40
$30
$20
$10
$0
Smaller half
of schools
Larger half
of schools
Cost per square foot
$20,000
$15,000
$10,000
$5,000
$0
Smaller half
of schools
Larger half
of schools
Cost per student
160
140
120
100
80
60
40
20
0
Smaller half
of schools
Larger half
of schools
Square feet per student
19
D o l l a r s & S e n s e : T h e C o s t E f f e c t i v e n e s s o f S m a l l S c h o o l s
Costs for Reasonably Sized Schools
The next phase of analysis compared the cost of
constructing small schools and those that are
larger but still within more reasonable size limitations
than mega-schools. ?Reasonably sized? for this
purpose meant the 145 schools in the data set that met
generous suggestions for the upper limits of school size:
1,000 students for high schools, 750 for middle schools,
and 500 for elementary schools. Dividing these schools
into ?smaller? and ?larger? groups at the mid-point of size
for each level (elementary, middle, and high school),
created the same six categories used in the first phase of
analysis, but produced markedly different results. 4
Analysis of this database shows that the smaller of the
reasonably sized schools are less expensive to build than
the larger schools, looking either at cost per square foot
or at cost per student: $105 versus $120 (cost per square
foot), and $16,283 versus $17,618 (cost per student).
Figure 7 - Data for 145 Reasonably Sized Schools2
Larger half are schools larger than median size of schools in 145 school subset of study database.
Medians are: 65 students per grade for elementary schools, 205 students per grade for middle schools, and 170 students per grade for high schools.
2 No larger than 1,000 students total enrollment in high schools, 750 in middle schools, and 500 in elementary schools.
3 Median size was determined by grade level for these 489 schools
according to number of students per grade. Medians were 93 students
per grade for elementary schools, 267 for middle schools, and
375 for high schools. In the case of a 9-12 high school, the number
375 indicates a total enrollment of 1,500 students: a size that
exceeds the most conservative of the upper limits proposed for high
school size.
4 The median number of students per grade in the group of 145 smaller
schools is: 65 (elementary), 205 (middle), and 170 (high school).
$150
$125
$100
$75
$50
$25
$0
Smaller half
of schools
Larger half
of schools
Cost per square foot
$20,000
$15,000
$10,000
$5,000
$0
Smaller half
of schools
Larger half
of schools
Cost per student
180
160
140
120
100
80
60
40
20
0
Smaller half
of schools
Larger half
of schools
Square feet per student
Costs for All Schools
The first step of the analysis was to compare the ?larger?
and ?smaller? schools by dividing them into six groups,
those larger than and those smaller than the medians at
three levels: elementary, middle, and high school.3 The
next step was to compare cost per square foot to build
the schools (a figure favored by architects) and cost per
student (a figure favored by school boards). Comparing
the cost of construction for all the schools in the database,
the cost per student to build smaller schools is about
twenty percent higher ($15,709 versus $12,977), than the
cost to build larger schools. The cost of $5.00 more per
square foot, however, is only about five percent higher
($109 versus $104). These are relatively small
differences, particularly in light of the overall benefits
of small schools and their concomitant savings to society
as a whole.
20
D o l l a r s & S e n s e : T h e C o s t E f f e c t i v e n e s s o f S m a l l S c h o o l s
Discussion
It is possible to answer both questions??Can small
schools be cost effective to construct?? and ?Has
anyone found a way to build smaller schools cost effectively???
with a clear ?yes.? The statistics presented here
illustrate that smaller schools can be less costly to build
than larger ones, if reasonable rules limit the size of
schools to something smaller than ?mega-schools.?
Furthermore, the cost per student is only somewhat higher
even when comparing schools in the widest size range.
Taking into account the enormous costs to society of
large schools, the answer is clear: small schools can be
cost effective.
Furthermore, this analysis clearly stands as a counterexample
to prevailing views; it is what mathematicians
call an ?existence proof.? It shows not only that smaller
schools can be constructed in a more cost effective
manner than larger ones, but also that some school districts
have actually made the rational choice to build
smaller schools. A different data set, in Appendix 4, also
shows (1) that school districts are building small schools,
and (2) that there are not significant cost variations
between smaller and larger schools. The ?common
wisdom? that small schools are not feasible because they
are significantly more expensive to build than large
schools simply does not hold true in the sample of model
schools analyzed in this paper.
Other information about the 145 schools in this data set
explains these surprising results. The smaller schools
include more grades (five instead of four) and allocate
fewer square feet per
student (151 versus 161).
Their slightly cheaper
cost per square foot, combined
with the allocation
of somewhat fewer square
feet per student, yields a
cost per student that is
also lower than that of
the larger schools. From
this initial research,
however, it is not clear
why larger schools chose
to provide more square
feet per student or were
more expensive to build
per square foot. A key question in the next stage of this
project will be to study why that has been the case and to
ask, are the extra square feet necessary for the additional
administrators or functions required in larger schools, or
do the extra square feet benefit students directly?
Analysis of this database
shows that the
smaller of the reasonably
sized schools
are less expensive to
build than the larger
schools, whether we
look at cost per
square foot or cost
per student.
Conclusion
Many people know intuitively that small schools
work best for children and teachers, but now
there is research to prove it. Unfortunately,
many communities have already lost their good, small
schools because they could not argue successfully against
educators and policy-makers determined to implement
?economies of scale? through consolidation. Now, it is
clear that there are significant diseconomies in large
facilities, and that they do not create the best schools
in which to nurture or educate children. It is important
to preserve good small schools, limit school size, and reconfigure
narrow-span large schools to achieve smaller
schools within schools. Best of all, this report indicates
that creating facilities for small schools can be done cost
effectively, and that in
fact, the cost of large
schools is higher considering
their negative outcomes.
Large schools are expensive
to individuals, their
communities, and the
nation because there are
many hidden costs. Most
obvious are expenses
such as increased transportation,
higher administrative
overhead, and expenditures for maintenance and
security. Other costs of large schools are more subtle:
lower graduation rates, higher drop out rates, high rates
of violence and vandalism, higher absenteeism, and lower
teacher satisfaction. Loss of a school has enormous social
and financial impacts on a community, and consolidating
schools and districts even erodes participation in democracy;
but perhaps most expensive are the costs to society
of the consequences of large schools: higher crime rates,
increased cost of incarceration, more violence in schools,
more families receiving public assistance, and the large
number of students whose talents are not fully realized.
The goal of this work has been and will continue to be
to offer credible analyses that compare the true costs
associated with mega-schools with those of smaller
schools. Four specific conclusions emerge from this
initial phase of work:
1. Communities should treasure their small schools
and policy-makers should protect these schools
with sound policies and financial support. State
legislators and other decision-makers should
implement policy that limits the number of students
in a facility to the range suggested in this
paper, as well as revise acreage requirements,
limitations on renovation, and outdated codes
and regulations that promote construction of
large schools.
2. Districts should reconfigure large facilities serving
narrow grade spans into schools with the widest
possible grade span in order to create smaller
schools within existing facilities. In addition
students and members of the community should
make full use of existing facilities for functions
and during time periods that extend beyond the
activities and hours of traditional schools.
3. The second phase of this work must draw from
a more representative base, not just from schools
submitted to design competitions for further
research, and should examine the costs of maintaining
and operating schools of different sizes.
The analysis must also seek to understand
the differences in costs between smaller and
larger schools.
4. The second phase should include an integrated
and comprehensive guide for the planning,
design, and maintenance of facilities for small
schools to demonstrate ways in which districts
can control costs when building, renovating, and
operating good small schools.
Dollars & Sense demonstrates that small schools offer the
best place to create environments in which students,
teachers, families, and members of the community can
teach and learn effectively. Furthermore, this report
challenges the notion that small schools are excessively
expensive by showing that facilities for small schools can
be built cost effectively. The message is clear: when
thinking about schools and school facilities, think small.
21
D o l l a r s & S e n s e : T h e C o s t E f f e c t i v e n e s s o f S m a l l S c h o o l s
[C]reating facilities
for small schools can
be done cost effectively,
and . . . in
fact, the cost of large
schools is higher
considering their
negative outcomes.
22
D o l l a r s & S e n s e : T h e C o s t E f f e c t i v e n e s s o f S m a l l S c h o o l s
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http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/spe96.pdf
Vermont Department of Education. (1998, February 2). Report of the small schools
group. Montpelier, VT: Author. Retrieved from
http://www.state.vt.us/educ/ssreport.htm
Vermont Department of Education. (1999, January 15). Small schools follow-up report.
Montpelier, VT: Author. Retrieved from http://www.state.vt.us/educ/ssreport.htm
Walberg, H. J. & Walberg H. III. (1994, June/July). Losing local control.
Educational Researcher, 23 (5), 19-26.
Wasley, P. A., Fine, M., King, S. P., Powell, L. C., Holland, N. E., Gladden, R. M., et al.
(2000). Small schools: Great strides, A study of new small schools in Chicago.
New York: The Bank Street College of Education. Retrieved July 12, 2002, from
http://www.bankstreet.edu/news/SmallSchools.pdf
Wasley, P. A. & Lear, R. J. (2001, March). Small schools, real gains.
Educational Leadership. 58 (6), 22-27. Retrieved July 12, 2002, from
http://www.smallschoolsproject.org/articles/download/realgains.PDF
Database Sources
Learning by Design. (1997).
Learning by Design. (1998).
CEFPI-2000 Orlando Architectural.xls
CEFPI-2001 Denver Architectural.xls
AS&U Architectural Portfolio 1992. (1992, November).
AS&U 2000 Architectural Portfolio. (2000, November).
AS&U Educational Interiors Showcase. (2001, August).
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D o l l a r s & S e n s e : T h e C o s t E f f e c t i v e n e s s o f S m a l l S c h o o l s
Appendix 1
Financing Capital Costs
The extent to which states contribute to local facilities
costs varies widely. Alaska and Hawaii fund 100 percent
of capital costs. In 2001, New Jersey?s Abbot Decision
determined that school districts identified as ?Abbott
Districts? will get 100 percent funding from the state for
renovation and new construction. Eleven states provide
no funding at all for school capital construction including
Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska,
Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, and South
Dakota. Some states give flat grants on a per student basis
(Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, and
Virginia), while others distribute equalized funding to
bring low-wealth districts up to a state minimum
(Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois,
Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts,
Montana, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania,
Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington,
Wisconsin, and Wyoming). States including Alaska,
Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Minnesota,
Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico,
Vermont, and West Virginia offer state grants to ?poor
districts that do not have the financial ability to finance
their needed capital outlay projects.? In West Virginia
the School Building Authority (SBA) gives grants for
Major Improvement projects and Emergency Needs
projects, which are not necessarily distributed to poorer
school districts. Four states (Arizona, Arkansas,
Colorado, and Tennessee), offer a basic support program
to school districts that gives a per pupil allotment regardless
of facilities needs (ECS, 2001).
There are several mechanisms that states and local
districts use to raise and allocate funds. These include:
current revenue or ?pay-as-you-go,? which only work
well in wealthy or large districts; reserve funds set aside
by school districts for facilities projects; general obligation
bonds usually maturing serially over time and
regulated by the state; lotteries; sales tax; and special
revenue such as money from the tobacco settlement or
lease-rental of state property.
Local districts are responsible for providing some funding
in all but two states and do this through property tax,
local sales tax, bonds, and other mechanisms. Low-wealth
districts face a difficult challenge in finding funds through
any of these mechanisms as enrollment may be low, property
generates limited tax revenue (Dewees, 2000, p. 1),
and there are few businesses providing goods and services
to produce revenue from a sales tax.
Appendix 2
Legislation proposed to the Maryland General
Assembly by Delegate David Rudolph, February 2001:
House Bill 1440
Preamble
WHEREAS, Research indicates that smaller school
size is the second most important factor in creating
positive educational outcomes, after socioeconomic
status; and
WHEREAS, Research related to school size indicates
that elementary and middle schools with between 300
and 400 students and secondary schools with between
400 and 800 students are more effective than schools
with larger student populations; and
WHEREAS, Smaller school size promotes learning and
improves grades and test scores of students, especially
minorities and low income students; and
WHEREAS, Research shows that school dropout rates
decrease in small schools; and
WHEREAS, Student behavioral problems, including
truancy, classroom disruption, vandalism, aggression,
theft, alcohol and substance abuse, and gang participation,
occur more often in larger schools; and
WHEREAS, Creating smaller schools and smaller
learning communities within larger schools promotes
school safety; and
WHEREAS, Small schools reduce the feeling of isolation,
allow students to form closer relationships with
teachers, and create a sense of student loyalty to and
pride in the school; and
WHEREAS, Researchers have concluded that the first
step in ending secondary school violence is to break
through the impersonal atmosphere of large secondary
schools by creating smaller learning communities within
large schools; and
WHEREAS, Research demonstrates that students who
attend smaller schools are more likely to participate in
extracurricular activities and to participate in a greater
variety of extracurricular activities; and
WHEREAS, Large schools contribute to negative teacher
attitudes and low staff morale; and
WHEREAS, Small schools can be established in a cost
effective manner, as the sheer size of larger schools
requires more administrative support; now, therefore,
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D o l l a r s & S e n s e : T h e C o s t E f f e c t i v e n e s s o f S m a l l S c h o o l s
SECTION 1. BE IT ENACTED BY THE
GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF MARYLAND, That the
Laws of Maryland read as follows:
Article-Education 4-109.
(a) Subject to approval by the State Superintendent
and in accordance with the applicable bylaws, rules, and
regulations of the State Board, a county board may establish
a public school if, in its judgment, it is advisable.
(b) On approval by the State Superintendent, any
school established under this section becomes a part of
the State program of public education.
With the advice of the county superintendent, the
county board shall determine the geographical attendance
area for each school established under this section.
(D) A COUNTY BOARD SHALL TO THE EXTENT
FEASIBLE ESTABLISH, AND THE STATE SUPERINTENDENT
SHALL ENCOURAGE THE ESTABLISHMENT
OF, NEW PUBLIC SCHOOLS TO SERVE THE
FOLLOWING MAXIMUM STUDENT POPULATIONS:
(1) FOR AN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL ?
400 STUDENTS;
(2) FOR A MIDDLE SCHOOL ?
600 STUDENTS; AND
(3) FOR A SECONDARY SCHOOL ?
800 STUDENTS.
SECTION 2. AND BE IT FURTHER ENACTED, That
this Act shall take effect
July 1, 2001.
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D o l l a r s & S e n s e : T h e C o s t E f f e c t i v e n e s s o f S m a l l S c h o o l s
Appendix 3
Methodology
The sample includes projects from the design competition
?Learning by Design,? organized annually by the
National School Boards Association, as well as similar
annual design competitions conducted by the Council of
Educational Facilities Planners International and two
national publications, American School and University
and Designshare. A total of 530 submissions were made
to these competitions from 1990 to 2001. Eliminating
duplicate submissions and those with missing data on
the variables of interest produced a final data set of 489
entries to the four competitions. Median size was determined
by grade level for these 489 schools according to
number of students per grade: 93 (elementary), 267
(middle school), and 375 (high school). In the case of
a 9-12 high school, 375 indicates a total enrollment of
1,500 students: a size that exceeds the most conservative
of the upper limits proposed for high school size.
These 489 ?cases? each include information about
geographic region, designed capacity, number of grades,
grade span configuration, total square feet, total cost, and
construction type (new construction only, or new construction
plus renovation). Several new variables use the
existing information: cost per student, cost per square
foot, students per grade (the preferred measure of size),
and square footage per student. Table 1 provides detailed
information on the analysis of the 145 cases representing
?reasonably sized? schools.
Table 1
Smaller as Compared to Larger Schools
variable size category mean SD difference p
cost/student smaller $16,283.86 $10,898.68 -$1,334.54 .44
larger $17,618.40 $9,886.45
cost/square foot smaller $104.64 $44.21 -$15.26 .152
larger $119.91 $78.40
designed capacity smaller 414.68 151.10 196.24 .000
larger 610.92 183.16
students/grade (size) smaller 99.66 60.59 -70.19 .000
larger 169.85 90.33
square feet/student smaller 150.63 53.62 -10.55 .463
larger 161.18 109.44
number of grades smaller 5.14 2.11 +0.85 .007
larger 4.29 1.55
Note: SD = standard deviation
p = significance level (p (.05 indicates statistical significance different from chance).
N= 145 schools under proposed upper limits of school size
D o l l a r s & S e n s e : T h e C o s t E f f e c t i v e n e s s o f S m a l l S c h o o l s
Table 2
Cost of Constructing New Schools by Size Category
all schools low half smallest large half largest
Elementary Schools All elementary schools (652) Under 650 (326) 300 and under (18) 650 and larger (326) 1000 and larger (23)
Median enrollment 650
Cost per square foot $116.67 $123.18 $156.38 $111.11 $90.91
Cost per student $13,707.07 $14,166.67 $20,867.00 $12,500.00 $10,000.00
Square feet per student 111.55 115.00 133.30 109.28 110.00
High Schools All high schools (157) Under 1200 (79) 600 and under (20) 1200 and larger (78) 1600 and larger (21)
Median enrollment 1200
Cost per square foot $118.81 $114.26 $96.28 $124.44 $133.33
Cost per student $17,500.00 $16,237.43 $15,125.00 $18,181.52 $18,045.45
Square feet per student 145.83 140.65 140.65 154.70 144.70
Middle Schools All middle schools (135) Under 800 (68) 500 and under (20) 800 and larger (67) 1300 and larger (8)
Median enrollment 800
Cost per square foot $123.27 $115.38 $122.22 $125.60 $120.91
Cost per student $16,428.57 $15,428.57 $16,800.00 $17,153.54 $14,615.38
Square feet per student 135.00 133.33 134.17 135.00 124.33
Based on data from 944 projects scheduled for completion in 2001 and 2002. Median enrollment is median enrollment for this
sample. Data was compiled by School Construction Alert (203-225-4751), a service of Dun & Bradstreet?s Market Data
Retrieval division, for use in School Planning and Management magazine?s annual school construction report. Paul
Abramson of Intelligence for Education, Inc. (914-834-2606) made a special analysis of the data for this table.
tion costs for the very smallest schools and for the very
largest schools in each category. He looked at: elementary
schools of 300 students and fewer and 1,000 or more, high
schools of 600 or fewer and 1,600 or more, and middle
schools of 500 or fewer and 1,300 or more. The result is a
table detailing cost per student, cost per square foot, and
square feet per student in the total group for each type of
school and for top half, bottom half, smallest, and largest
groups for each type of school.
According to these numbers, in this group of schools,
costs per square foot and per student are actually lower for
the two smaller groups of high schools (1,200 and under
and 600 and under)?as compared with the two larger
groups (1,200 and larger and 1,600 or larger). Similarly,
for middle schools, costs per student and per square foot
are lower for the two smaller groups of schools (under 800
and under 500) than for the large half (800 and larger).
Only the largest middle schools (1,300 or larger) show
cost savings, and even then they are more expensive to
build than those in the small half (under 800). Only in
the elementary category are the smaller schools more
expensive to build in every case. Nevertheless, the differences
are not so substantial as to offset the benefits provided
by the smaller schools.
Appendix 4
Data compiled by Paul Abramson
An Examination of the Relative Cost of New
School Buildings by Type and by Enrollment
Data compiled by Paul Abramson, who assembles comprehensive
school construction cost data for School
Planning and Management magazine, confirms that small
schools are being built at reasonable prices and offers
another look at building costs. Abramson looked at the
construction costs for virtually all of the elementary,
middle, and high schools in the United States that were
scheduled for completion in the years 2000 and 2001.
This group consisted of a total of 944 schools, with a
median enrollment of 650 students for the elementary
schools, 1,200 students for the high schools, and 800 students
for the middle schools. He broke down the schools
in two ways for purposes of the analysis. First, he computed
construction costs for all the schools in the ?top
half? in each category (elementary, middle, or high)?
i.e., all those with enrollments above the median?and
costs for the ?bottom half??i.e., all those with enrollments
below the median. Second, he extracted construc-
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