Michigan school districts are resisting consolidation. Will 237 million dollars change mentalities?

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  • Michigan education budget includes $237 million to shore up public school districts
  • Proponents say redundant admin spending is better spent on teachers and classrooms
  • Voters have always been reluctant to consolidate in their communities

Consolidation is kind of a dirty word in education circles. For many administrators, this raises the specter of bitter debates over district boundaries and community identity.

Heads of state are now betting that a little money can help change their minds.

Michigan’s new education budget provides at least $237 million in incentives for districts that plan to join forces. Details are yet to be worked out, but experts say the money could be used to pay off debts that stand in the way of a district consolidation, or to repair or build buildings that would better match the demographics of the newly combined district.

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State Sen. Jim Stamas, a Midland Republican who fought for incentive funds, says his motivation was simple: Michigan has too many school districts, he says, resulting in redundant administrative expenses. that could be better spent supporting teachers and students, especially post-pandemic.

“We have declining enrollment, but we still have over 800 school districts,” Stamas said. Many districts have 300 or fewer students. My hope is that…we could find ways to encourage them to work together to invest less in the administrative part rather than investing money in the classroom.

But history has shown that consolidation efforts were unpopular with voters in many communities. And it’s unclear if a financial carrot will do much to change that picture.

“It’s third rail,” said Lou Steigerwald, superintendent of schools for the Norway-Vulcan region in the Upper Peninsula. “You bring up the word ‘consolidation’ and it touches the community. »

District mergers have shaped Michigan’s school landscape

Consolidation—or the combination of school districts—plays a key role in the origin story of Michigan’s school system. In 1912, the state had 7,362 school districts, including one-room schools, according to the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council. In the 1950s and 1960s, hundreds of districts banded together, spurred in part by the idea that students would be better served in “complete” K-12 districts.

By 1970, when the state had 638 districts, consolidation slowed. Since then, the trend has been mainly in the opposite direction. The number of districts has grown to more than 840, thanks to the growth of charter schools, which often operate as stand-alone districts.

Only five other states — Texas, California, Ohio, Illinois and New York — have more school districts than Michigan, and all have larger populations.

Efforts to reduce the number of Michigan districts in recent years have not gone down well with voters.

Residents of St. Clair Shores overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to combine their three districts in 2001. Proponents’ claims that a combined district would be more profitable and able to offer stronger academics lost fear that amalgamation does not eliminate schools and community identities. who go with them.

Last year, the Troy school board rejected an application to absorb public schools in Clawson, a small district that has struggled with declining enrollment, saying the Troy district didn’t need the additional income that would come with Clawson students.

Racial and class tensions can also be a challenge for mergers when the districts in question have different demographics. Districts seeking consolidation in the mid-20th century are usually associated with other districts that had similar demographics, while urban districts and poor community districts struggled to find consolidation partnersaccording to the Citizens Research Council.

Heads of state have made more concerted efforts for municipal consolidation over the past decade and a half. Governor Jennifer Granholm called on districts to shore up business services in her 2007 State of the State Address. In the wake of the Great Recession, former Governor Rick Snyder also pushed to consolidate. He created a $3 million grant program to help neighborhoods come together.

Yet the past decade has seen only a handful of examples of consolidation, most of which were financially troubled districts annexed (Marshall/Albion), consolidated (Ypsilanti/Willow Run) or disbanded (Inkster).

During the recession, cash-strapped districts were forced to squeeze every ounce of savings possible through service consolidation, said Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals lobbyist Bob Kefgen. He doubts that further consolidation will lead to much larger savings.

“Schools have had a lot of cuts and looked at a lot of ways to save money,” he said. “About a decade of tight school budgets is probably a better motivator” for consolidation than financial incentives.

Is it time for consolidation?

Michigan’s fiscal situation is very different today than it was when Granholm and Snyder were saddled with gigantic deficits. State budget hits historic highs and schools report growing reserves. And schools are getting an infusion of federal aid, along with increased state funding under the new education budget signed into law Thursday.

Even so, given the potential for saving money and administrative efficiency, Steigerwald says officials are still right to push — sensitively — for consolidation in the state’s smaller districts, including in the PU. There are 63 traditional districts in the state with fewer than 300 students, all of which are rural.

Stamas, the state senator, said these times of crisis may be the state’s best chance to push districts to make tough but necessary consolidation decisions.

“If there is a time when we have dollars available…and we can hopefully make (consolidation) affordable and logical, we should do it,” he said.

Stamas initially proposed a $500 million fund to incentivize districts to band together. After negotiations with Governor Gretchen Whitmer, the Legislature passed a budget creating a $475 million fund to help districts with the costs of infrastructure consolidation and improvements. Half of the money is to be used for consolidation-related projects.

Business groups say consolidation can help schools better capitalize on the state’s fiscal strength.

“Districts have made some very tough decisions, but there are still opportunities,” said Lindsay Case Palsrok, vice president of public policy for Michigan Business Leaders. The group calls for substantial new investment in the school system, backed by new tax revenues, as well as increased efficiency through policies such as consolidation.

The budget measure is “not an authoritarian mandate,” she said. “It’s asking people to take a look and see if it’s worth using those dollars” for consolidation-related projects.

As long as consolidation is optional for districts, that probably won’t happen, said Joshua Cowen, professor of educational policy at Michigan State University.

“I find it difficult to understand who has real skin in the game, politically,” he said. “Which hill are they going to die on to really push the consolidation forward?” »

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