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Article of Interest - Michigan

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Bridges4Kids LogoReorganization, Consolidation Can Help School Budget Crisis
The Oakland Press, December 19, 2004
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Michigan's much-admired former Gov. William Milliken used to say that money shortages in government can be a good thing. They can provide a compelling reason to rethink what we're doing and spending.

 
So let's look at the looming tax-money crunch as an opportunity to better serve those who pay, not simply as an excuse to increase taxes.

It is no secret that our public schools feel themselves to be in a financial bind. Proposal A and the Headlee Amendment combined to largely take away their long-standing reliance on ever-increasing property values.

The situation has prompted the State Board of Education to ask its superintendent, Tom Watkins, to outline the problem and propose possible solutions.

He's done so, thoughtfully.

Among other things, Watkins wonders how we can continue to justify operating 750 local public school districts and public charter schools, along with 57 intermediate school districts.

He noted that we serve 1.7 million pupils at an annual cost to taxpayers of $12 billion. Your calculator will show you that is about $7,000 per youngster. Shouldn't we be able to get the job done?

To dramatize his point, Watkins said the city of St. Clair Shores is served by no less than three school districts that enroll just 8,300 pupils altogether. The small city of Inkster is served by five districts and five charter schools.

But residents love their localities. Voters in two of the St. Clair Shores districts voted against consolidation recently. The "loss" of sports rivalries was an issue. Don't they realize many districts have more than one high school among each others' foremost rivals?

Watkins suggested that intermediate districts could be called upon to manage all the local schools within their boundaries - usually along county lines. Or one district could contract to manage the rest.

Does Oakland County really need more than two dozen $100,000-a-year-plus public school superintendents?

Other public agencies are beginning to see the light. Ferndale, Pleasant Ridge, Hazel Park, Madison Heights and Royal Oak are meeting about sharing firefighting services.

Watkins' report to the state board also notes what has begun to make headlines on its own: School employee health and pension cost increases are eating districts alive financially.

If schools were to get $300 a child in additional funds, he calculated that two-thirds of it simply would go to cover increases in those expenses.

You can check all this out for yourself online at www.michigan.gov/documents/michiganschoolfunding_110803_7.pdf.

More than 80 percent of school costs are personnel costs and they continue to climb. That's in the face of what perhaps is the weakest state economy in the nation - thanks largely to competitive pressures on the automobile industry. The problem has to be dealt with if the fate of the pupils in our care is to be taken as seriously as that of the staffers. There is no way taxpayers should be asked to provide more money. In excess of $175,000 a classroom a year ought to be enough.

Reorganization, and reorganization alone, must be on the table.

    

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