Local districts brace for consolidation

Published 5:47 pm Thursday, September 12, 2013

CASSOPOLIS — Local educational leaders will be in Lansing Monday to learn more about state Supt. of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan’s five-year proposal to consolidate some non-instructional administrative functions at the county level.

In recent testimony before a House Joint Appropriations Subcommittee, Flanagan proposed consolidating bus services, teacher evaluations systems and assessment and data as ways to redirect money into the classroom.

“For example,” Flanagan said, “a couple of functions include school food services and transportation systems. Do we really need hundreds of separate transportation systems?”

Flanagan’s comments came as the state dismantled two financially insolvent school districts, Inkster and Buena Vista in Saginaw.

Of the state’s 549 school districts, 55 show deficits.

Flanagan said the state cannot deal with districts one at a time, so he wanted to see school districts with consolidation plans on five-year timelines.

Flanagan emphasized that the intent of his presentation was not to suggest local school districts close or merge, but a hybrid proposal.

Since 1913, the number of local school districts in Michigan dropped from 7,327 to 549, according to The Detroit News. The state had 1,515 districts in 1963.

During the hearing, Rep. Brandon Dillon, Grand Rapids Democrat, said the state should not embrace a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to consolidating services, since both larger and smaller districts can have inefficiencies.

“Don’t do consolidation for consolidation sake,” Dillon said.

Supt. Robert Colby told Lewis Cass Intermediate School District Board of Education Wednesday evening, “Mike Flanagan rolled out a plan to the Legislature recommending that we establish countywide school districts. As a hybrid, five-year approach to that concept, he would like us to consolidate all non-instructional services at the county level — transportation, food service, business operations, technology, custodial maintenance — run by the ISD. Along with that is the expectation that the ISD will be involved with any distressed district. Any ISD that doesn’t have the capacity to do that will be forced to merge with another ISD. He has the authority to do that.”

“Two years ago we spent a whole year looking at a countywide transportation consortium,” Colby said. “We came to the conclusion that we could create a countywide transportation department, but there were no inherent efficiencies or cost savings. In fact, in some instances it would cost districts more than what they’re doing right now.”

Colby added, “Nobody has a clearly delineated job description anymore because we’ve reduced and cut back so much that almost every employee in the district has multiple functions. I haven’t talked to local school boards about this much, but I have talked to our local superintendents and they’re not in favor. For one, they already looked at transportation. Food service, Edwardsburg, Dowagiac and Marcellus privatized. Cassopolis has theirs in-house. We privatized with Cassopolis for a couple of years. Now we’ve got ours back in-house. We’ve looked for efficiencies. As a county service agency, we have an obligation to do whatever it takes to make sure we’re viable and valuable to the people we serve.”

Colby will be in Lansing Monday at the Michigan Association of School Boards program, as will Marcellus Interim Supt. Nanette Pauley, whose district is in the most precarious fiscal position in Cass County.

“Marcellus, ironically, gets some of the highest student achievement results in all of southwest Michigan,” Colby said, yet “if we had to close them down, we couldn’t do what makes sense and send some to Three Rivers, some to Lawton and some to Decatur, they’d have to go to Dowagiac or Cassopolis. That part doesn’t make sense to me.”

“If I have a sense this is on a fast track,” he told his board, which includes Dowagiac City Manager Kevin Anderson and Southwestern Michigan College Chief of Staff Tom Atkinson, “and we’re going to be expected to step up in short order, I’ll send the board an update.”

“If you have a 10-percent fund balance, you’re okay,” Colby said. “Five to 10 percent, you’re going to be on a watch list. Less than 5 percent, you’re going to be identified as a financially distressed district. Any district identified as distressed, there is an expectation the ISD will get involved. Two-percent fund balance seems to be the tipping point. Right now, if you are identified as a financially distressed district, you are assigned an emergency manager who either rights the ship or closes it. I think most local districts prefer if that has to be done, it be done by the ISD with which they already have a relationship. We would step in and do an assessment of business operations and personnel to determine if they have the skill level to get the job done.”

Colby said classrooms at North Pointe Center in Dowagiac and at Brookside Learning Center on Dailey Road “are either at or over capacity. In fact, we hired another early childhood special education teacher today because we have so many kids in the program. Business is booming.”