Total school districts by state and the level of county consolidation 295 430 197
574 16 24
176 303 36 166
100% to 90% county structure 89% to 25% county structure 24% to 1% county structure
Produce Sale! All This Week!
SUNDAY, AUGUST 15, 2010
THE GRAND RAPIDS PRESS
CONSOLIDATION SCENARIOS ADD UP TO MILLIONS
SCHOOL FUNDING IS ‘POLITICAL AND EMOTIONAL’
SHARE AND SAVE?
CONTINUED FROM A1
advocacy groups are calling for shared services. Former state Superintendent Tom Watkins, Flanagan’s predecessor, is a forceful voice for consolidation. “Maybe the way things are set up now was good public policy and made sense 20 years ago, when the money was there. There’s nothing wrong with paying people a nice wage and having small school districts,” Watkins said. “But that’s as if Ford and GM behaved as if Honda, Toyota and Hyundai didn’t exist. Now there is declining enrollment and choice and charters, yet the infrastructure is operating as if nothing has changed. They need a reason better than ‘We’ve always done it this way.’” But proponents acknowledge that forcing mergers on reluctant communities — or even getting school boards to agree to share services — is a political nightmare. “School funding isn’t rational. It’s political and emotional. And if you threaten cuts, people will say you’re against the kids,” said Watkins, who led Michigan schools from 2001 to 2005 and consults internationally in business and education. The MSU research team, led by professor Sharif Shakrani, agreed to predict statewide savings for the two options of shared services or complete county-level consolidation into about 57 intermediate districts based largely around the lines of one county or more. Shakrani said dollars are saved through economies of scale and by eliminating administrative and operational redundancies. His work did not include closing any buildings or shifting any students. “Many people hear ‘consolidation’ and they think about closing schools, but that doesn’t have to be the case,” he said. Some educators say they know meaningful savings are attainable, but only if lawmakers are willing to be bold and families are open to big changes. “By my calculation, there are $10 million in administrative redundancies in Muskegon County alone,” said Muskegon Superintendent Colin Armstrong, one of 13 school chiefs in that county. He said current efforts to combine services and staff address only about $1 million of the overlap. “Michigan won’t seriously begin the process of consolidation until the economy hits rock bottom and there are districts that literally cannot afford to operate schools,” Armstrong said. The MSU report discusses the political and practical turmoil that comes with forced mergers and notes many local school leaders “abhor” the idea.
Some pieces in place But researchers said Michigan already has good regional educational networks: the 57 intermediate school districts drawn roughly around county lines. They were created to provide services to member districts that would be too expensive or unwieldy for local districts to offer on their own. “In Michigan, the ISD system is greatly underutilized. While some have increased their roles to provide more services, many are passive,” Shakrani said. “The ISDs can and should provide the mechanism whereby constituent school districts can share services such as purchasing, warehousing and data processing, as well as the coordination of contractual services for transportation, food and building maintenance,” he wrote. Educational quality is another issue Shakrani addressed. Many districts, urban and rural, have high concentrations of students from low-income or impoverished families. Reducing operating costs could help “improve the quality of education for all students,” the report said. Researchers also emphasized there is a lack of consensus on whether countywide consolidation itself affects student achievement. School consolidation has been an ongoing march in the country since the early 20th century, as communities moved from one-room schoolhouses to neighborhood schools and community districts. Michigan dropped from 7,300 districts to 4,900 in the baby boom years following World War II. The number shrank to 600 after the 1964 School District Reorganization Act. Since 1970, the number has held near 550, leaving Michigan trailing only California, Illinois, New York and Texas in total districts. (Michigan ranks eighth in population and 11th in area.)
MSU STUDY PREDICTS SAVINGS FOR EACH WEST MICHIGAN DISTRICT Researchers: Sharif Shakrani of Michigan State University’s Education Policy Center is a professor of measurement and quantitative methods. His expertise includes using research in setting educational policy and analyzing how testing and teaching methods affect student achievement. Scope: The study covers school consolidation history, analyzes Michigan’s political climate, estimates possible savings from county-level consolidation or service sharing, and gives an Sharif Shakrani in-depth ﬁnancial review of potential savings in 10 sample Michigan counties. Model: Savings estimated through a formula created at Syracuse University by William Duncombe and John Yinger, longtime experts in the ﬁeld. Read the complete study: mlive.com/mi10 DISTRICT (GROUPED BY COUNTY)
GENERAL BUDGET EXPENDITURES
SAVINGS FROM COUNTY-LEVEL CONSOLIDATION
SAVINGS FROM SHARED SERVICES
KENT COUNTY BYRON CENTER CALEDONIA CEDAR SPRINGS COMSTOCK PARK EAST GRAND RAPIDS FOREST HILLS GODFREY-LEE GODWN HEIGHTS GRAND RAPIDS GRANDVILLE KELLOGGSVILLE KENOWA HILLS KENT CITY KENTWOOD LOWELL NORTHVIEW ROCKFORD SPARTA WYOMING COUNTY TOTALS
$31.6 million $36.6 million $29.9 million $22.5 million $27.7 million $98.3 million $16.6 million $23.3 million $216.8 million $53.5 million $21.7 million $34.6 million $12.4 million $84.8 million $33.8 million $32.6 million $73.1 million $25.3 million $55.1 million $932 million
$1.3 million $1.5 million $1.3 million $917,577 $964,473 $3.5 million $524,356 $825,552 $9.1 million $1.9 million $789,566 $1.4 million $512,765 $2.8 million $1.4 million $1.1 million $2.8 million $935,354 $2.0 million $35.8 million
$672,041 $749,556 $632,586 $413,735 $300,766 $1.7 million $166,330 $383,704 $4.1 million $967,711 $292,040 $654,272 $253,215 $1.3 million $785,875 $454,994 $1.3 million $426,111 $878,050 $16.4 million
STATES MOVING TOWARD CONSOLIDATION
DISTRICT (GROUPED BY COUNTY)
GENERAL BUDGET EXPENDITURES
SAVINGS FROM COUNTY-LEVEL CONSOLIDATION
SAVINGS FROM SHARED SERVICES
OTTAWA COUNTY ALLENDALE COOPERSVILLE GRAND HAVEN HOLLAND HUDSONVILLE JENISON SPRING LAKE WEST OTTAWA ZEELAND COUNTY TOTALS
$19.1 million $22.1 million $56.4 million $41.6 million $47.3 million $44.5 million $22.0 million $45.8 million $45.8 million $367 million
$789,348 $833,698 $1.8 million $1.4 million $1.5 million $1.3 million $766,882 $2.2 million $1.6 million $12.3 million
$315,909 $353,255 $827,323 $453,912 $671,753 $559,565 $355,315 $1.0 million $771,781 $5.3 million
ALLEGAN COUNTY ALLEGAN FENNVILLE GLENN HAMILTON HOPKINS MARTIN OTSEGO PLAINWELL SAUGATUCK WAYLAND COUNTY TOTALS
$23.1 million $12.7 million $243,600 $22.9 million $12.6 million $6.2 million $21.0 million $22.9 million $8.5 million $24.3 million $154 million
$851,737 $520,517 $6,606 $848,458 $563,535 $269,882 $895,506 $763,642 $340,910 $899,435 $5.9 million
$395,833 $253,764 $1,900 $453,136 $246,960 $90,367 $358,725 $317,793 $98,991 $375,603 $2.6 million
Many states in recent years have tried to consolidate their school districts to more closely resemble county districts used by Florida (67 districts), Maryland (24 districts), and a few other states. Hawaii has a statewide district. Here are samples of those efforts.
Total school districts by state and the level of county consolidation
Arkansas: Governor in 2003 tried to consolidate high school districts below 1,500 students. Legislators, influenced by small towns lobby, in 2004 set mandatory consolidation of districts below 350 students. California: Clarified process for consolidating districts in 2009. Pockets of districts are working toward consolidation.
Illinois: Offers four types of consolidation incentives. The most popular in the past 10 years is a payment of $4,000 per certified staff member to districts that reorganize. State still has 869 districts. Indiana: State commission in 2007 proposed consolidation of districts smaller than 2,000 students. Citing school quality, governor in 2008 called for 54 districts below 1,000 students to consolidate, but legislators ignored the recommendation.
574 16 24
176 303 36 166
100% to 90% county structure 89% to 25% county structure 24% to 1% county structure No county structure (or negligible)
Kansas: Passed 2009 consolidation legislation to affect sparsely populated rural districts. Maine: 2007 law aimed to reduce 290 districts to 80 by requiring districts below 1,200 students to merge with a neighbor. Today, 215 districts remain, despite threats of stiff fines and reduced aid to small districts. Mississippi: A governor’s commission to study merging a third of the state’s 150 districts is considering forced consolidations when a district has poor academic performance, is below 2,000 students or has administrative costs above $460 a student. State law allows for adjoining districts to share administrations. Nebraska: Shut down elementary-only districts and merged them with K-12s in 2005, but voters repealed that in 2006. Small schools, however, were not reinstated. New York: Offers merger incentives. State commission in 2008 recommended that districts below 900 students merge with a neighbor. Ohio: A 2010 study recommends reducing the state’s 614 districts by at least a third.
Rep. Fred Miller, D-Mount Clemens, in October introduced a bill to create a committee to eye potential district mergers, modeled after a federal military base-closing process. The bill sits in the House Education Committee. As state superintendent, Flanagan wants to push intermediate districts into taking on more responsibilities, under the shared-services model. “If I could wave a wand over the state, I’d keep the local districts, but there would be a lot more done at the county level, as you see in Florida,” Flanagan said. “A countywide system is going to feel so much more impersonal. You have so many places where the school district is the whole identity for the town. When they think of their schools, they have that pride, and they have a voice.” Tom White, the former chief of the Michigan School Business Ofﬁcials who consulted with Shakrani on the report, said it’s more realistic for districts to share services on a countywide level over a ﬁve- or 10year period. “It can all happen in an orderly way, which is not to say there won’t be some bumps in the road since you are dealing with people who will be losing their jobs. But if you allow things to happen more naturally, they have a better chance of sticking.”
Economies of scale But stopping short of complete consolidation has other challenges. A shared-services model has gained traction in the Flint area after devastating losses of 70,000 General Motors jobs and 30,000 students. As a result, the Genesee Intermediate School District assumed business services for 12 member districts. “There comes a point where your economies of scale are diminished,” Superintendent Thomas Svitkovich said. “You have to manage budgets and conduct public hearings and provide the audits for each of the districts. And each of the districts needs to ﬁle separate reports with the state and federal governments, especially if you have some districts that rely on more grant funding.” Districts also need to buy compatible software for business functions, requiring cash at the start for systems and training, said Superintendent Kevin Konarska, of the Kent Intermediate School District. The ISD has worked toward cooperation with a shared data warehouse, a private busing contract for special education students, a teachers union contract template and more. Flanagan said buying compatible equipment isn’t a barrier, because districts routinely replace systems anyway. But he understands why school boards and communities are reluctant to lay off bookkeepers, a transportation director or secretaries. “It takes some courage. I understand that you don’t want layoffs. But we’re moving toward more layoffs anyway, so you might as well keep them as far away from the classroom as you can.” Watkins said changes will have to come from Lansing. County and local educators are too close to the situation. “If you’ve been in the silo all your life, you don’t have the vision to see what else is out there,” he said. “It’s going to take someone with intestinal fortitude. You need to tell people, ‘If you want to keep your Bulldogs, Colts and other things, then you’re going to have to accept some of these other changes.’ “When someone shows you death, you accept serious injury more readily. And like the auto industry, unless they totally revamp the way they do business, they’re going to be dead.” E-mail: email@example.com
PRO & CON Consolidation: 2 views POSITIVES
Pennsylvania: Governor advocates reducing 501 districts to 100 to save administrative costs. South Dakota: Districts below 100 students must consolidate or the state will write a reorganization plan. Penalties are possible, but the state Senate won’t grant the Department of Education authority to enforce consolidation. Wisconsin: Recently offered $10,000 merger study grants to its 426 districts; 25 accepted. SOURCE: Education Commission of the States
Consolidations most beneﬁt small and rural districts, and more than half of Michigan’s systems are below a 2,000-student threshold considered a ﬁscally ideal minimum, researchers said. Michigan spends more than $12 billion on public education. Within three years of consolidation, savings amount to 8 percent of operating costs, 4 percent of instructional support, 15 percent of administration and 18 percent of transportation spending, the report concluded. It also added that, so far, little research-based evidence exists on long-term ﬁnancial
effects of consolidation. While the shared-services model saves half as much, it can be more politically palatable, researchers said.
resist any efforts toward consolidation, Shakrani said, and even if talks begin, it can take years before districts combine. Only two mergers have occurred Arguments against in Michigan in the past 10 years. This The study discusses opposing ar- month, voters in the Adrian-area disguments, such as loss of community tricts of Deerﬁeld and Britton overidentity and history, and the fact that whelmingly agreed to fully unite their consolidations create job losses that small districts, after testing the waters can hurt a local economy. Loss of lo- with a sports team merger. The other cal school boards is another issue, recent merger was in the Upper Penbecause they provide an avenue for insula: Gogebic County’s Wakeﬁeld residents to have a say in what hap- and Marenisco. pens in their schools. Legislative efforts to nudge schools Most Michigan school districts toward mergers have fallen ﬂat. State
Costs: Reduces administration overhead, streamlines operations, preserves classroom spending, and cuts costs of school board elections Equity: Helps ensure that no school district becomes a pocket of poverty or offers less access to quality instruction Learning: The state and federal governments set curriculum and other school rules, leaving less of a need for local school boards.
NEGATIVES Community: Small-town emotion and identity are linked with schools Power: School boards, teachers unions and residents are reluctant to cede local power Economics: Residential property values and taxes can be affected; teacher wages must be negotiated, some schools might lose grant subsidies, and districts have varying bond-indebtedness levels.
THE GRAND RAPIDS PRESS
SUNDAY, AUGUST 15, 2010
Nobody messes with the mascots School pride is just one of the obstacles to consolidation; local control is valued, too
ABOUT THIS SERIES TODAY Do we need all of these districts? MSU study commissioned by The Press and affiliated newspapers reveals $612 million in possible savings for Michigan if schools were consolidated at the county level.
BY DAVE MURRAY THE GRAND RAPIDS PRESS
n Rockford, Ram pride runs deep. People strolling through town will soon encounter 4-foot-tall Ram statues proclaiming school loyalty. Ram’s head stickers peer from countless car windows. Several downtown stores sell “Ram Wear,” the orange-and-black attire of choice for the 13,000 people who pack the football stadium on fall Fridays.
But would families still be as loyal to their Rams — or their Red Arrows in Lowell or Rebels in Godfrey-Lee — if their superintendent, buses and lunch supervisor were based across the county instead of across the street? The most difﬁcult animal to kill, it’s been said, is a school mascot. But Michigan State University researchers said there are a variety of substantial organizational changes — many of them invisible to parents — that districts can make that would save millions of dollars without closing a single school or sacriﬁcing a Ram. In Kent County alone, erasing the boundaries separating school districts and reorganizing under one county district could free up more than $35 million a year, according to MSU researcher Sharif Shakrani. Or $16 million could be saved annually by keeping district lines and reconﬁguring services such as transportation, maintenance and business functions through a countywide hub in intermediate school districts, called ISDs. But sacrificing what millions in management helps buy — local control and a strong community identity — isn’t an option some want on the table. Just ask the head Ram, Superintendent Michael Shibler. “A countywide district would be a huge, impersonal bureaucracy,” said Shibler, superintendent for more than 20 years. He has seen Rockford double in size to 8,000 students, with families drawn by good schools, strong sports teams and growing community spirit. “If a parent has a problem in a school, what would they do? Call the ISD and wait two weeks for a response? That’s going to be frustrating,” Shibler said. “Here, they call me, and we have the problem resolved in an hour. My job is to serve this community, these kids and our families.”
School support Shibler proudly noted that his community has never rejected a tax increase request for construction. District residents are relatively well off: Only 16 percent of Rockford students qualify for subsidized lunch, compared with 44 percent in neighboring Cedar Springs or 87 percent in Grand Rapids. But with a cash-strapped state slashing budgets, including school operating funds, most districts have responded with layoffs and other cuts. Many of this area’s large districts voted this summer on budget cuts topping $2 million. Rockford’s school board had to cut about $5 million, eliminating about 50 teaching, staff and administrative positions. That followed $2.7 million in midyear cuts, moves that will raise
How we compare: Kent County has 20 superintendents. Lee County, Fla., has one. What’s the difference? Reality check: Will consolidation ever happen? What would it take?
PRESS PHOTOS/KATY BATDORFF
The home team: Linda Hamilton, owner of Pegasus Sports, 43 E. Bridge St., Rockford, stacks sweatshirts. School spirit is big in Rockford, evidenced by “Ram Wear” seen around town, such as the socks at left.
class sizes by about three students. Classroom cuts often fuel interest in consolidation, which spares classroom funding while paring management costs. Kent County school administration costs alone represent about $15 million in redundant expense that could be eliminated if the schools were regrouped under one district, the MSU study found. Part of that comes from pay for 19 superintendents, who pull salaries from $100,000 to $210,000 a year, and assistant administrators who earn six-ﬁgure wages. Reorganizing transportation under one department would save $9.2 million through more efﬁcient routes and combined maintenance and insurance, according to the study. Merged maintenance and operations expenses would shave another $7.2 million in costs, while shared instruction oversight would save $4 million, the study found. Maintenance work would be more efﬁcient as crews could hit ﬁve or six schools in a day, cleaning ﬂoors and making repairs. In Ottawa County, consolidation would save $12.3 million, the MSU study found. Educators said cutting costs might
sound good to taxpayers paying the bills — until they are personally affected. “Anyone can save on transportation by eliminating bus stops,” said Karen McPhee, superintendent of the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District. “But what happens when you have a kindergartner who now has to walk four blocks and boards a bus with high school students? We have to ask if what we’re doing is in the best interests of the little humans we have to take care of.” Even supporters of consolidation note that mergers rarely happen unless state lawmakers create a climate for it, either through incentives or mandates. And mandates are unpopular, especially when community identity comes into play. “Forcing the issue is a kiss of death,” McPhee said. Shibler, who leads a grass-roots group to influence school legislation, said lawmakers wary of a voter backlash would treat a school consolidation bill “like the plague.” But legislators could drive a service-sharing plan by spelling out exactly what they want districts to work on together, he added.
Local control Also lost in countywide districts would be a community’s voice on a school board. People making tough decisions for programs that were a part of Kelloggsville could live in Sparta or East Grand Rapids. Even in a shared-services model, families are one more step removed
No consolidation for charters? the Michigan Association of Public School Academies. “What you won’t ﬁnd, however, in GRAND RAPIDS — Each of ‘our’ school districts, are a number the state’s more than 200 charter of six-ﬁgure-salary deputy superinschools is smaller than the smallest tendents and legions of staff that are Kent County school district. not located inside a school building But while the 1,650-student God- actually teaching children.” frey Lee or 1,400-student Kent City Many charter school employees, districts get mentioned as consoli- including teachers, work for mandation candidates, no one in state agement companies such as Nationleadership is calling for eliminat- al Heritage Academies instead of the ing charters. In fact, leaders from charter school’s board. President Barack Obama to state Naeyaert said traditional school Superintendent Michael Flanagan districts only recently have started have included expanding the role to outsource noninstructional serof charter schools as part of their vices. Districts that contract with a Race to the Top education reform vendor for food service, transportameasures. tion and other functions save money About 111,000 Michigan students in part because they do not have to attend 243 charter schools, including contribute to the state’s retirement 7,500 students in Kent County and system. “This is already widely practiced 2,760 students within the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District. within the charter school moveCharter school backers said their ment, where nearly all noninstrucoperations are efﬁcient despite their tional services are being contracted small size. to outside providers,” he said. “When it comes to public charter Naeyaert said charter school leadschools, it is true that each school ers don’t think consolidating disis a standalone school district,” said tricts would save enough to balance Gary G. Naeyaert, a spokesman for what could be lost academically. BY DAVE MURRAY
THE GRAND RAPIDS PRESS
from the person planning a student’s school lunch or bus route. In practical terms, regrouping 19 Kent County districts into one would be a logistical challenge, considering each has a different tax rate to pay for construction bonds and many receive different per-student state aid funds. The move also would mean disbanding 19 school boards, a political hot button. The savings might not be enough to justify upheaval, many educators believe. “I worry about the loss of local control. Our local communities value the input they have in their schools,” said Kevin Konarska, superintendent of Kent Intermediate School District, which includes 19 in-county districts plus neighboring Thornapple Kellogg. “And I’m just not convinced that you can achieve that level of savings by creating a countywide district.” Konarska said most educators favor the slower approach of encouraging district partnerships, sharing some positions and allowing intermediate districts to gradually assume common functions — the $16 million savings option, according to the MSU study. County leaders are making small steps in that direction and formed a superintendents committee to pursue more collaboration. Five districts just consolidated some business and technology services under the KISD to save about $430,000, and other districts could be added. Area schools also contract with one company to bus special education students, use a centralized computerized data warehouse and, most recently, began a more uniﬁed approach to employee relations. Ten school boards adopted a template labor contract that includes employee contributions to health-care premiums. Kent County also has one of the rare superintendents shared by two systems. Jon Felske completed his first year at the helm of Wyoming and neighboring Godwin Heights and is used as an example by state Superintendent Michael Flanagan, who strongly backs consolidating services. Felske recently asked his Wyoming board to close two schools as part of a plan to save $2.9 million, and Godwin Heights approved closing one building to save $2.4 million. Despite those cuts, the two boards could not agree on a money-saving option that goes to district identity: combining administration buildings. They put off a decision until fall. But with state budget difﬁculties continuing, Felske said more parents eventually will have to decide if they care where their district’s operations are supervised, so long as they keep their school buildings. And, of course, keep those mascots. “The day is coming,” he said, “where people are going to have to accept some drastic measures.” E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Join the conversation: Live chat online with state Superintendent Mike Flanagan and other education experts: Go to mlive.com/mi10 at 1 p.m.
TUESDAY How shared services might look: A day in the life of Jon Felske, who serves as superintendent of Wyoming and Godwin Heights districts. What if: A look at what might change if Grand Rapids merged with East Grand Rapids, for example, or Holland merged with West Ottawa.
WEDNESDAY Lessons from Raleigh: Why are there no bad schools in this North Carolina region? The argument for complete socioeconomic integration. Keeping it small: In the tiny Allegan County community of Glenn, a K-6 public school has just 45 students. They wouldn’t consolidate even if another district begged them.
SUNDAY A college try? Should Michigan have one university system?
STILL AHEAD SEPTEMBER Are labor unions the problem?
OCTOBER Do we tear up the state Constitution?
THE SERIES SO FAR
JANUARY How do we get Michigan working? FEBRUARY Time to pay the toll for roads? MARCH Should we sell natural resources? APRIL Tax changes could eliminate our deficit, but at what cost? MAY Is it time to take some communities off the map? JUNE Can our cities be cool? JULY Do tax lures bring new jobs? AUGUST Do we need 550 school districts? MISS AN INSTALLMENT? GO TO MLIVE.COM/MI10
FACT SHEET A quick math and history lesson about Michigan education funding and consolidation trends FUNDING
Grant funding: Most districts also Most of the money is raised by a 6 percent sales tax and lottery proceeds. receive extra state and federal money directed toward special needs, such as “at-risk” programs, or Title 1 grants to Local funding: Schools still get some funds from property taxes, collected at help low-income students. different levies for primary residences and second homes or commercial DISTRICTS AND CONSOLIDATION State funding: Districts get a minimum property. Kent and Ottawa area Historically, Michigan township districts also get money collected of $7,162 per student, though some officials created schools, dividing through intermediate school district receive a little more, a holdover from the township into “districts” that levies for special education. when each district set its own levy. were commonly a single school.
Michigan schools have been funded largely based on enrollment since voters in 1994 approved the landmark school finance overhaul called Proposal A.
Baby boom era: Michigan had a wave of school district consolidations in the two decades following World War II, a time of prosperity, increasing urbanization and growing student enrollment. The number of districts declined from about 7,300 to about 4,900. Next wave: Another round of consolidation occurred around
1970, when inflation was rampant, enrollment was declining overall but suburban populations were growing. The number decreased from about 4,900 to almost 600. Currently: The total has held at about 550 for 30 years, not counting charter schools. Michigan approved charter school legislation in 1994 and currently has 240 charter schools.
299 522 Total school districts by state and the level of county consolidation 126 55 215274 100% to 90% county structure 89% to 25% county s...