Jul 26 2013

Michigan schools deserve a plan, not emergency closure

Last September, Michigan had 1,529,887 students enrolled in 883 public schools. The state manages 549 “Local Educational Authorities” (LEAs) that are loosely governed by 56 “Intermediate School Districts,” (ISDs) (1). After this week, the number of LEAs will be smaller by 2, as the State of Michigan moved forward with the dissolution of the Buena Vista School District and Inkster Public Schools (2).

This issue has been in Michigan headlines quite a bit since May, when Buena Vista schools abruptly closed because the local district did not have the funds to complete the school year (3). Rather than put the local district into emergency management like in Detroit, Highland Park, and Muskegon Heights, the Michigan Legislature quickly passed Public Act 96 and 97 of 2013 (4). Signed by Governor Rick Snyder, these laws give State Treasurer Andy Dillon and State Superintendent Michael Flanagan the authority to dissolve local districts if they meet six criteria (5).

Last week, Treasurer Dillon and Supt. Flanagan determined that Buena Vista and Inkster met those criteria, and they were subsequently dissolved the local districts on Monday. Their ISDs now decide what will happen to the students. In the case of Inkster, their ISD announced yesterday that their students will attend one of four neighboring local districts in the fall. Inkster assets and buildings will be split up among the four local districts as well (6).

Now, if you watched what happened in Buena Vista from the very beginning, you may be applauding this decision. Let’s face it, Buena Vista didn’t have the funds to pay their staff, and academically the local district was considered lackluster at best. When Republicans rammed through PA 96 and 97, they decried the gross mismanagement of Buena Vista schools. Further, Supt. Flanagan made the case that we simply have too many local districts in Michigan, and that it makes more sense to operate our schools at the county level (7). But what’s happening right now is extremely problematic. It’s my guess that the disorganized consolidation of local districts is only going to create more chaos at a time when our students are suffering due to continued budget cuts.

Michigan’s School Funding Crisis
Due to Michigan’s school funding structure — known as Proposal A — state disbursements are tied to property taxes and the value of Michigan homes. Michigan was the canary in the coal mine when it came to the nationwide mortgage crisis, but our problems were apparent back in 2001. Tack on the Headlee Amendment — a conservative policy that limits tax increases to 5 percent or less — and schools have a hard time making up for lost funds (8). In fact, at the time the Legislature passed PA 96 and 97, Supt. Flanagan informed legislators that 55 school districts faced some form of budget deficit (9). The cherry on top is the massive business tax cut pursued by Gov. Snyder and his Republican allies during his first year in office. The nearly $3 billion tax cut has been paid for with taxes on seniors and the working poor as well as cuts to schools and other state programs (10).

There is no way small districts like Buena Vista and Inkster can survive under these restrictive policies. Even affluent districts like Grosse Pointe had to take extreme, outside-the-box measures, such as tacking employee pay to the size of the state’s disbursement to the district, in order to endure the financial hardship (11). The first thing the state needs to do in order to improve the state of our schools is fix and fill the funding gap. We cannot continue to underfund our local districts in the name of corporate tax breaks. Time and time again corporations make it clear that they want to launch or relocate in regions that value education. Michigan is sending the opposite message with its school funding structure.

Race matters
For a time there was concern that PA 96 and 97 infringed upon Buena Vista’s pre-clearance protections under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (12). When the Supreme Court struck down those pre-clearance protections, it cleared a hurdle for Buena Vista’s elimination (13). While the protections were put in place at a time when Buena Vista had a large migrant population, the local district remains a majority-minority district with over 60 percent of residents identifying as Black or African-American. The same is true of Inkster as well as all three of the local districts under emergency management. No majority-White districts have been subject to state action, which makes me wonder who is ultimately affected and protected by this legislation.

Rather than panic, let’s plan
If the state does indeed want to consolidate districts and place more authority on the ISDs, then Supt. Flanagan must to get together with his staff, take his outline I referenced earlier, and turn it into a comprehensive plan for how we can create strong ISDs over the next 2-5 years and for the foreseeable future. It does not make sense to swiftly deem a district inoperable, dissolve it, and push the students and families elsewhere without any step-by-step guide. Rather than flying by the seat of our pants on this issue, let’s lead and get it right.

Our governor and legislators aren’t stepping up to the plate. I’m looking to you, Supt. Flanagan. Please come up with a comprehensive plan for the future of our schools. Our kids and our constituents deserve better.

Update: Here’s a new map highlighting the new districts for former Buena Vista and Inkster students

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    I'm an educator, Kalamazoo College alumnus, Democrat, and proud Detroiter! Views here are my own.

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    Early Childhood

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