Commentary: School districts in deficit

Jun 9, 2013

Well, it’s Friday, and I have all weekend to hide from angry listeners, so I thought today I would take on a major sacred cow.

We have more sacred cows than we are willing to admit in today’s world. By that I mean problems for which the solutions are fairly obvious, but which we are unwilling to do anything about.

That’s because dealing with them honestly would mean breaking taboos. Some think we have gotten beyond taboos in this society, because we can talk about sex all the time.

Well, nothing could be further from the truth. One of our most damaging taboos involves our school districts.  Unless you’ve been at the South Pole for the last few months, you may have noticed that Michigan has a record number of districts in severe financial crisis.

Fifty-five are currently facing budget deficits, and that number is certain to increase. Last month, the Buena Vista district in Saginaw County ran out of money and closed down before the school year ended, and they probably won’t be the last to do so.

Yesterday, Mike Flanagan, state superintendent of public instruction talked to a group of legislators on appropriations subcommittees. He noted, correctly, that a large part of the problem is that the state isn’t providing enough money to many districts, especially now that they have tougher standards to meet.

That is true enough. But there is also another problem. Michigan has far too many districts. Some, like Buena Vista are too hopelessly small and poor to provide adequate resources.

They also waste vast amounts of money on administrators and  bureaucracy, Michigan has about five hundred and fifty traditional public school districts, plus another two hundred and fifty plus charter school districts. What does this mean? Schools top-heavy with management -- superintendents, business offices, you name it.

But there’s been little movement towards consolidation, because while it may make perfect sense for East Microdot Schools to combine with West Microdot Schools, but it doesn’t happen because neither Microdot superintendent wants to give up their job.

Three years ago, Michigan State University’s education policy center did a comprehensive study of this and concluded we could save more than six hundred million dollars a year by going to a county-wide system.

Yesterday, Flanagan suggested to the legislature that they consider changing to such a plan, which while saving money could still preserve things like traditional sports rivalries. But he ran into a stone wall of irresponsibility. John Pappageorge, a state senator from Troy, told him “You guys are the smartest guys in town. Why don’t you give us a county system to look at?”

But he instantly betrayed his insincerity by proclaiming that a county system wouldn’t work in Oakland County, where he lives, because it is too big. Terry Jones, a representative from Pigeon, said most small districts didn‘t need it either. And Pappageorge then  bizarrely attacked the Common Core Curriculum standards, which he seems not to understand.

To his credit, Flanagan said that the state should give him more authority to dissolve and combine districts clearly mired in deficit. Again, that makes perfect sense. But given our current term-limited and often ideologically blind legislature … good luck with that.    

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.