School district services consolidation

MARQUETTE – Reaction is mixed among local educators over a proposal by state education Superintendent Mike Flanagan to consolidate services among Michigan’s myriad school districts.

Flanagan offered the idea in a July 8 letter to the the state senate’s Appropriations Subcommittees on K-12 education.

Though he said he thinks singular, county-wide districts are a good idea and notes they are already working in places like Florida. He said it may be difficult to make the full transition in Michigan and offered what he called a “hybrid system” in which school districts simply consolidate services.

Included in the list of services outlined in the letter are: transportation systems, curriculum development, staff training and development, educator evaluation systems, education technology, school accounting functions, school food service, assessment coordinating and building-level date collection and reporting.

“There still would be local school districts, with school boards and local administrators, however, with this hybrid system of countywide functions, local districts would be able to focus primarily on getting their students to higher levels of achievement and on educator evaluations,” Flanagan wrote.

Some local educators are hopeful a county-wide system could help save their districts money and said the matter should be looked into.

“I think it certainly is something that should be looked at, should be evaluated, and some type of study done, costs at the (Intermediate School District) level as opposed to local districts paying for their services on their own,” said Gwinn Area Community Schools Interim Superintendent Stephen Piereson “There are many western and southern states that do county-wide school districts already, so you would think you could do services also. i understand the questions that come up with this but I think it certainly merits attention to determine if there are actual financial savings and efficiency savings in doing those types of centralized service on a county-wide or ISD-wide basis.”

Karen Anderson, CEO of North Star Academy, a public charter school, said moving to one, county-wide system could spell disaster for public academies in Michigan.

“I’m not sure that public school academies would survive,” Anderson said.

Charter schools provide competition to local school districts, Anderson said, offering a choice to parents who want their children educated differently.

“If they’re all operated the same, there’s no reason to have a choice,” Anderson said. “If you’re running everything under one administration, why would one school differ from another?”

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, agreed with Anderson.

“If consolidation equals centralization through ISDs, charter schools would cease to exist,” Quisenberry said. “So would a lot of other local school districts.”

Quisenberry said the state is trying to focus on saving money, but is going about it in the wrong way.

“You have to step back and say, ‘What are we trying to accomplish here?'” Quisenberry said. “You’re talking about economies of scale. You’re not talking about centralization. If making districts bigger – combining them – made sense, then Detroit would be the most cost effective school district in the state because it’s the biggest. I don’t think anybody would agree that it is.”

Negaunee Public Schools Superintendent Jim Derocher lands somewhere in the middle, saying the idea has its merits but in some applications may not be practical for Upper Peninsula districts.

“It would be interesting to see where they go with this and see if they come out and do some studies, because when you’re in the U.P., it’s vastly different than the urban areas of downstate,” Derocher said.

He said his district, along with other districts in the west end of Marquette County, already consolidate some of their services, citing a partnership between Negaunee, Powell Township School District and Ishpeming Public Schools to consolidate mechanical services with district vehicles.

“I think all three districts are finding that to be beneficial,” Derocher said. “Now, if you expand that, I don’t know at what point in time it becomes not as cost efficient as we’re seeing right now.”

Flanagan maintains that consolidation is the best way to make Michigan’s schools run more efficiently.

“It is my belief that the only way to save local school buildings is to make the districts that serve them more efficient to save money, and more effective to increase student achievement,” Flanagan wrote in the letter. “With these economies of scale, I am confident that it would save millions of dollars minimally, and I would want to ensure that all cost savings would go back to the classroom.”

Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.