It is time for a bold change in Michigan's educational system
The conclusion of a Michigan State University study that school districts could save more than $600 million a year by consolidating at the county level comes as no surprise to anyone outside the educational establishment.
This kind of meaningful, structural change has become a matter of survival in the private sector, but continues to be resisted in education, despite the obvious benefits.
What would it take to change that? In a word, leadership. Whether at the local level or in Lansing, the time is ripe for someone to seize this issue and demand that public schools begin adopting the kind of real reforms that would direct more money to the classroom and propel education into the 21st Century.
The opportunities are clearly there, and consolidation is one of them. Researchers at MSU’s Education Policy Center have concluded that costs for such things as administration, operations and transportation could be reduced by anywhere from $328 million to $612 million a year, if school districts statewide did more to share services or took the more radical step of consolidating at the county level. The study was funded by AnnArbor.com and seven Booth newspapers in Michigan.
The study is not a blueprint for consolidation, and there is nothing magical about consolidation at the county level. Rather, it is meant as a discussion-starter, offering some measure of how much public education in Michigan could save if it rid itself of the duplicative costs and inefficiencies that are inherent in operating 550 public school districts.
This is where educators should be focusing attention right now. They should be examining every dollar that’s being spent on something other than educating students in the classroom, and asking whether there are possible savings that could direct that money to instruction instead. Clearly, the answer is yes.
Whether it’s consolidation, or legacy costs, or support services, there are huge opportunities for savings that school districts have only begun to tap. Slowly and tentatively, districts beginning to look at things like share services or reducing custodial or transportation costs.
Earlier this year, the Washtenaw Intermediate School District put forward a plan under which is said the county’s 10 school districts could save up to 25 percent on transportation costs by consolidating bus service. So far, three districts have signed onto the plan: Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Willow Run.
The hesitance that other local districts showed to embrace this plan is symptomatic of the inertia that we see in education today. Rather that leading change, and making Michigan a fulcrum of education reform, the emphasis remains on maintaining the status quo.
One of the biggest potential advantages of consolidation would be reducing the layers of administration that are duplicated in districts that sit side-by-side. Yet that opportunity continues to be missed. According to an October 2009 survey by the American Association of School Administrators, twice as many school districts reported they were cutting teachers in core subjects as said they were cutting staff in central administration. That is a telling example of misplaced priorities.
It is time for bold change in education in Michigan. School districts should either start moving rapidly toward solutions like consolidation, or be compelled to do so by the state. We call on the gubernatorial candidates to make this an issue in their campaigns. We call on State School Superintendent Michael Flanagan to use his position as a bully pulpit on the issue.
The states of Indiana, New York, Maine, New Jersey and Vermont all provide some form of financial support to encourage school districts to consolidate. In Michigan, state Rep. Fred Miller, D-Mount Clements, has introduced a bill that would push school district mergers, based on a model used to decide federal military base closings. Whether through this bill or some other action, the Legislature should craft a plan to forcefully prod districts to consolidate.
Recently the National Governors Association has been calling on states to consider school consolidation as a way to deal with education funding cuts. John Thomasian of the association’s Center for Best Practice, told Stateline.org: “Now that we are in such a clear and long-run fiscal climate of austerity, issues like school district consolidation have to be taken straight on.’’
What are we waiting for? If local school districts can’t overcome their own inertia, then it’s time for the state to step in and force the issue.