Capital News Service
Lansing — Despite interest in the possibility of public school consolidations across the state, many superintendents agree that collaboration on services is a much more feasible option.
As schools are pressed to make more budget cuts, the issue of consolidation arises again, but it’s controversial because communities worry about a loss of identity.
Meanwhile, Gov. Jennifer Granholm is raising the possibility anew by proposing $50 million from the School Aid Fund to assist with the collaboration of services between districts.
Sheryl Presler, superintendent of Clare-Gladwin Regional Education Service District, said that the school system often serves as the hub of the community in rural districts, and eliminating a school could be devastating.
“Traditionally, Michigan has had a strong belief in local control, and people are used to a community school system with a locally elected school board. People worry that that could be lost in a consolidation,” Presler said.
Doug Pratt, director of public affairs at the Michigan Education Association, said, “It might sound silly, but the biggest thing for voters locally is that they don’t want to kill high school mascots. Rival football teams have been rivals for years, and now all of a sudden you’re talking about a merger. It’s going to upset people.”
The MEA is the state’s largest union of teachers and other school personnel.
The last consolidation in Michigan in which two adjacent districts combined into a single district occurred in 2004 in the Upper Peninsula. The Marenisco School District was unable to survive after its enrollment fell to about 60, so a neighboring district in Wakefield, with about 300 students, suggested consolidation. Although a compromise was necessary on which school colors the newly formed district would use, it was otherwise a smooth transition, said Catherine Shamion, superintendent of the Wakefield-Marenisco School District.
On Aug. 3 in Lenawee County, the Britton-Mason and the Deerfield school districts voted to consolidate into Britton-Deerfield. The merger will go into effect the start of the 2011-12 school year.
Tom House, superintendent of the Harrison School District, said that although consolidation of districts in Clare County has been seriously considered, those proposals failed and the districts chose to collaborate on services instead.
For example, intermediate school districts and countywide service agencies have been able to provide services that were previously overlapping, such as technology, administration and transportation, House said. Much of the savings is based on economy of scale, such as bulk prices for supplies.
Districts were collaborating before Granholm recommended that $50 million of the School Aid Fund be distributed to districts as an incentive to consolidate.
Michael Van Beek, at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, said that because Michigan’s school budget is about $17 billion, plus $2 billion from the federal government, $50 million isn’t much money.
Van Beek is the director of education policy at the Mackinac Center, a free market-oriented think tank.
Van Beek said he’s concerned that districts that wouldn’t benefit from consolidation may still be interested in the money.
“Just because there is a grant for consolidation doesn’t necessarily mean that any district is suited for merging,” Van Beek said.
Still, Clare-Gladwin’s Presler has been looking into programs that could benefit from or be preserved if the governor’s $50 million recommendation wins legislative approval.
But the MEA’s Pratt said that with the Granholm’s gubernatorial career coming to an end soon he’s unsure where the Legislature will go with the recommendation.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.