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Posted on Sun, Aug 29, 2010 : 6 a.m.

It is time for a bold change in Michigan's educational system

By Tony Dearing

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 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 “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.



Tue, Aug 31, 2010 : 12:44 p.m.

For archival purposes, here goes: "... 1) Schools here in the US are funded 3rd highest in the world. "... 2) Our per capita is 5th highest in the world." I don't see how that is very relevant. We live in a country with high overall wealth (though it is becoming far more concentrated) and should spend a lot on public education at all levels. Anyway, I don't object to adjacent school districts looking into ways to save by sharing resources with one another. I do think larger, more populous districts are less democratic. According to (page loads a pdf) the U.S. annually spends $661 billion on military expenditures, followed by China in second place with an estimated $100 million and France in third with almost $64 billion. Think of the things this country could do if total defense outlay dropped to, say, $161 billion (still way ahead of everyone else) and the half-trillion in savings were applied to everything from education to universal health care to mass transit and more. "... 3) Our graduating HS seniors show an alarmingly low proficiency." Proficiency can vary wildly, depending most often upon a district's economic demographics. Poorer families live in poor urban or rural areas that underfund their schools. Economic and social dysfunction related to generations of chronic poverty produce more youth who don't care much about what goes on in classrooms. Fixing this quagmire goes well beyond the purview of district consolidation and/or increased school funding alone. "... 4) And now, the big question, how will throwing more money at our present educational system fix the problems we have?" Of course, more money doesn't automatically lead to improvement, since it still has to be spent intelligently. Increased funding would, however, at least allow for the future possibility of smaller, more innovative classroom environments with more technology & materials and fewer staff layoffs. "... First, and your own web site affirms this, 47% of Americans pay no tax at all. So, how are the poor overtaxed?" Rather than have a confusing assortment of federal income tax credits that cancel out taxes for some on the lower end, get rid of most of them and instead significantly raise the minimum earning threshold for paying an income tax, which has its social reform roots as a Progressive-era luxury tax. The 47% figure has fairly recently become a meme in conservative politics. Although their official rate of taxation has been vastly reduced from 91% to 35% in less than 50 years, the wealthy continue to whine, and in so doing will point out as "unfair" any "privilege" that those on the low end receive. Also, I was remiss earlier not to point out that the high bracket fell considerably, to well under 80%, during the Kennedy/Johnson years. For more commentary on this, see: and "... Just because someone can 'afford' to pay more, is that an imperative that they should? This is sounding rather socialist to me...." Yes, it is an ethical imperative, and especially so in a society where a nationwide army of the homeless continues to expand and where mortgage foreclosures have become epidemic. The wealthy are the big winners in our society's arbitrary game of class-based economics, and it's right that they pay a heavy tribute on their financial winnings. And people are free to say that "this sounds rather socialist" or to apply any other term that they feel like.


Mon, Aug 30, 2010 : 6:37 p.m.

Speechless Keeping in mind that the article was about schools et al, I don't want to go too far afield with the taxation thing. To help you keep on target, here are the concerns I have: 1) Schools here in the US are funded 3rd highest in the world. 2) Our per capita is 5th highest in the world. 3) Our graduating HS seniors show an alarmingly low proficiency. 4) And now, the big question, how will throwing more money at our present educational system fix the problems we have? I find your assertion that "The poor and the lower middle class are overtaxed and should pay less. For those in higher income brackets who can very easily afford to pay more, it's both a practical and moral imperative that they make bigger contributions." to be very troubling. First, and your own web site affirms this, 47% of Americans pay no tax at all. So, how are the poor overtaxed? From the same article: "Forty seven percent of Americans pay no federal income tax,[38][36] which raises moral concerns regarding wealth redistribution and the economics for controlling the size and spending of government." Second, who determines someones ability to pay? What rate is appropriate? (Fill in the blank _______%) Just because someone can 'afford' to pay more, is that an imperative that they should? This is sounding rather socialist to me. Third, tax rates for the top level have been falling, for the most part, since the mid-sixties, so why single out only the Republican presidents? If afraid this is sounding more and more like "From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs." The Soviets found out the hard way that pretty soon, there was very little 'ability' and a whole lot of 'need'. Also, could you provide data that shows that an increase in funding for schools increases student performance?


Mon, Aug 30, 2010 : 12:42 p.m.

For the moment, this is starter material: In regard to top tax bracket, all I can say is "I Like Ike!" Admittedly, he did allow the top rate to plummet from 92% down to 91%. That compares to 70% under Nixon, 50% and then 38% under Reagan, just 28-31% under Bush One, and 35% under Bush Two. Given the vast, spreading, financial misery since the start of the latest big economic downward turn three years ago, I can't imagine any reason to show the slightest hardship sympathy for privileged elites and the upper middle class. They can whine about their 'problems' all the way to the bank. Tax the rich to help feed the poor — as well as the public schools. Alma Wheeler Smith's graduated income tax proposal for Michigan is quite gentle compared to federal progressive taxation. Her overall tax plan also relies on closing various loopholes, according to news reports I've seen.


Mon, Aug 30, 2010 : 7:56 a.m.

Speechless Also, on another thread, I provided links to data from the IRS and other sources that showed that the 'rich' are already shouldering a disproportionate burden of the taxes, and that something like 40% of Americans don't pay any income tax at all. Could you show me where the 'rich' don't pay their fair share? Forget the rhetoric; it won't fly. Simply provide the data please. Thanks.


Mon, Aug 30, 2010 : 7:27 a.m.

Speechless Here is what I find objectionable about increasing funding for public education: throwing good money after bad. As you contend, you can pull money from all quarters to give education more. The military is the perennial favorite for yanking funds. I get that. (Let's not mention that SS and Medicare/Medicaid and other social programs alone account for well more than half of the entire federal budget. No room to cut here?) The fact remains, Speechless, that schools are funded to a very high degree already, and have shown again and again how inept they are at graduating seniors who are ready to compete on a world wide level. Again, show me the data that proves otherwise. We all want our kids to have the best education available. That is a given. Counter intuitive as it seems, throwing ever larger sums at it will not work. And, can you lay off the 'conservative, intelligent design crap'? I'm not going to take the bait and argue the point, other than to say that you do a disservice to education in general when you slam schools for a tiny portion of what they may, or may not teach. Please be careful when you paint with such a broad brush.


Sun, Aug 29, 2010 : 10:31 p.m.

"... Regardless of how you tap dance around "yes, higher taxes"...." One more time: Lower taxation for the poor and lower middle classes plus  the same or slightly higher taxation for the middle plus  higher taxation for the upper middle class and above equals  increased revenue for the State of Michigan and more funds for schools — all with reduced tax burden for those state residents who aren't so well-off As for the contention we "overfund" schools, what could be objectionable about improving public education through increased public investment? Or are the objections really all about tearing down public education and public sector unions in favor of low-paid educators who teach intelligent design classes at conservative religious schools fueled by state voucher money? Conservative posters here dance around the very relevant point Ghost raised when bringing up defense spending boondoggles. To take that point further, by cutting defense by half or more and deleting the many billions that the fed spends to arm foreign countries, suddenly we'll have plenty of money to expand public education, underwrite universal health care, and do more. Tony Dearing's essay and full-scale consolidation become inconsequential.


Sun, Aug 29, 2010 : 5:59 p.m.

Speechless I'm not sure how you come up with your assertion that schools are chronically underfunded. Here is some hard data that demonstrates otherwise: You will see that we rank third worldwide in per student funding. You will also note that we rank fifth in the world in per capita gnp. So, if you compare per capita gnp per student funding, I think you'll find that your assertion doesn't bear up. I'm well aware that you can bend statistics this way and that, but the fact remains that we fund our schools very nicely here in the US. If you can point to data that shows otherwise, I'd be happy to have a look at it. I think Tony is heading in the right direction when he states that " 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." I would add further that if we don't get our act together very soon, we will be compelled to do so by forces outside of our State, and more importantly, out of our country. Succinctly put, I am completely opposed to higher funding for schools. I think they have proven poor stewards of the countless billions lavished upon them. Once again, if you can show me data that shows otherwise, I will be glad to have a look.


Sun, Aug 29, 2010 : 4:03 p.m.

Regardless of how you tap dance around "yes, higher taxes", the implied assertion of your phrase "underfunding" is: we need more funding; more funding will be derived from higher taxes.


Sun, Aug 29, 2010 : 2:07 p.m.

From further above:  "Chronic underfunding for state school districts will continue until there is a progressive overhaul of Michigan's taxation system." Call it what it you mean: higher taxes. For clarification:  progressive overhaul  =  higher taxes for the wealthy The poor and the lower middle class are overtaxed and should pay less. For those in higher income brackets who can very easily afford to pay more, it's both a practical and moral imperative that they make bigger contributions. Hence, it makes sense for Michigan to join the other 33 states that have a graduated state income tax. Cut some tax loopholes, too, while we're at it. These are the kinds of reform moves that will aid public education funding in the long run. School district consolidation, if applied mainly as a financial panacea, is like plugging a handful of leaks in the dike while its foundation continues to steadily erode and produce many more leaks. I'll concede, though, that what Ghost describes up above is interesting, particularly in regard to North Carolina. That situation appears to offer a middle ground between complete district consolidation and a limited sharing of resources between fully independent school districts. Done right, which is a very big caveat, a significantly decentralized form of consolidation could still leave room for meaningful local input and control over school affairs.


Sun, Aug 29, 2010 : 12:04 p.m.

We could start with services that no one really cares about, except those directly involved, procurement and IT. If that works, then move on to others. A commitment to take one service a year to a ISD level for the next 6 or 7 years would significantly reduce the overhead cost. @Hotsam While I can agree that education is underfunded, I can also point to millions of dollars wasted in the AAPS district, as I have done over and over again. The lastest example happened this week. Untrained people using PowerSchool to schedule classes at the middle and high schools. Talk to anyone who had children go through this mess, some students scheduled to two classes in the same hour, others with hours and hours of empty schedule and a frustrated school staff. The district spent millions on PowerSchool and made the promise to train the staff. The unions indicated they would not use it without proper training. We are still spending hundreds of thousands a year with inadequate training for users and no one in the district adequately supports. The school board needs to make a hard decision shut it down like they promised they would if it was not used right, or force the administration to train the staff. I have been to districts where PowerSchool is properly used and it really helps bring teachers, students and parents together, here it is another wedge between them. It is a shame. Most businesses have gone through their organization and decided what was core business and what was not. They use lean processes to decide what to keep doing and what to let someone else do. Schools continue on the original Henry Ford model, we do it all ourselves. In many cases the districts are way too small to be effective at contracting for services and materials. Identifying needs and potential service providers yes, but the actual contracting, no. Look at the money saved and efficiency gained with the county wide substitute teacher program. More importantly AAPS will never be dragged into another substitute lawsuit, because they pieced the wrong law firm to listen to and did not have the expertise to provide the right guidance. Millions saved twice over and better teachers in the classroom. Fixing the waste does not mean no new money, but it does mean that the public will more easily support more money.


Sun, Aug 29, 2010 : 10:54 a.m.

Mr. Dearing - An outstanding article. These suggestions have merit, can produce real savings, can be introduced incrementally, can be measured for effectiveness, and can be scaled. The only significant drawback is political: the plan would reduce payments to public employees. And the public employees comprise the single most powerful political special interest group in existence today. It is likely the education financing situation will worsen before political leaders can finally use a financial crisis as justification for offending such a powerful lobby reducing their number, lowering their wages, and lowering their pensions. The excellent ideas you have mentioned should be kept at the ready, it's likely that within just a few years, they will be implemented.


Sun, Aug 29, 2010 : 10:42 a.m.

"Chronic underfunding for state school districts will continue until there is a progressive overhaul of Michigan's taxation system." Call it what it you mean: higher taxes. It seems you are a member of the protected class of public employees; the rest of the workers, who pay your wages, are struggling financially; hoping for a tax increase is very problematic.


Sun, Aug 29, 2010 : 9:26 a.m.

This topic was discussed at length in an earlier article and its subsequent discussion thread: While consolidation makes sense for districts that have seen significant enrollment decline over the last generation, as a policy it entirely avoids the actual causes of ongoing budget problems for the state of Michigan and, by extension, the state's public education system. Its functional political purpose would be to delay inevitable financial reckoning until a later time. Superficially, district consolidation might appear as a practical conservation of resources, but it's really no more than short-term, escapist behavior which enables further procrastination. This would be like Stewart Beal using duct tape to shore up the remaining walls of Depot Town's Thompson Bldg. — which, you know, might even help for a brief while, just like consolidation. Any savings from consolidation will disappear soon enough, since Michigan can no longer raise sufficient tax money to cover its annual budget. Lower administrative costs from fewer districts will initially reduce red ink, but then budget shortfalls will return with a vengeance, as if nothing had been done. As a result, Michigan residents would get very little in return for giving up a very significant degree of local, democratic control over school decisions. The larger the district. the smaller the impact of families and neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the 'power players' gain advantage from consolidated authority. Chronic underfunding for state school districts will continue until there is a progressive overhaul of Michigan's taxation system. Let's close various tax loopholes, institute a graduated state income tax that adds revenue from high income brackets, and create a state-owned bank to assist the regional economy while it also contributes to the state budget. Ultimately, adequate funding for schools must come from increased state and federal support. District consolidation should not be confused with voluntary resource sharing. It makes sense for nearby school districts to consider working together in areas of operation where mutual cooperation can be practical and helpful.

Hot Sam

Sun, Aug 29, 2010 : 7:25 a.m.

We are long overdue for some type of consolidation. I empathize with educators arguments about the different needs of many communities, and don't necessarily agree with a county only system. However, with almost six hundred districts (including ISD"S), there is much that can be done. When we are finished here, we can then work on the billions that are wasted in Washington in the name of education, and we can then end up with enough money to pay our teachers and keep our schools vibrant.