A record number of Michigan schools are struggling to stay in the black and a law put in place this summer allows state officials to dissolve and consolidate small schools with big problems. So far the headlines have been from some of Michigan's more populated counties, but some schools in the north that are paying close attention to changes from Lansing.
A Success Story
In Suttons Bay, the last Saturday of summer vacation was dedicated to a massive school fundraiser. A lot of people have already heard this story. It looks like the Leelanau County tourist town has probably broken a world record for stringing together more than 2,000 canoes and kayaks in a massive Flotilla on Suttons Bay.
Mike Hill, Superintendent of the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District, says he's impressed with Suttons Bay's fundraising, its creative budgeting, and he's impressed at the simple fact the school district remains solvent.
"They have tried so many different, innovative approaches and initiatives to maintain the identity of that school district, the pride of that school district, the student achievement levels of that district, the extra-curriculars. It really is a fascinating story, one that I think brings a lot of pride for this region," says Hill. His intermediate school district serves Suttons Bay and other local school districts in the five-county region surrounding Traverse City.
Despite the success, Hill says Suttons Bay remains at risk of going in to the red. Likewise, Suttons Bay Superintendent Mike Murray says he's trying to make sense of the new law that allows dissolution of small, financially struggling districts. He has not ruled out the possibility that it could, one future day, apply to Suttons Bay Public Schools.
"Funding schools the way we do, so much money per pupil, makes those districts that have declining population, puts them in a spot where they can't adjust quickly enough," says Murray.
He gives an example, say a district lost 25 students: "That would be a considerable amount of money, $150,000 dollars," he says. "But losing 25 students might mean on that, a bus you would go from busing 55 students to 52 or 53 students each bus run.
"You can't reduce the number of bus runs. You still have to cover the same amount of territory and you still have the same bus costs. Each classroom might go from 27 students down to 25 students, that doesn't mean you can reduce the number of teachers."
It's not necessarily the case that schools with big money problems are failing academically, nor are they always financially mismanaged. There are other small, rural districts with declining enrollment and dwindling budgets where student achievement remains high.
After many years of recession, this is actually a pretty old story, one state Senator Howard Walker, R-Traverse City, hopes will soon be behind Michigan. He championed a small "equity" payment this year that means more money for the state's lowest funded schools, including a lot of northern districts.
"I'm real confident that northern Michigan schools are going to stay solvent," Walker says. "I think that, we've turned the corner. I think that funding increases have happened and will continue to happen. I'm optimistic that way."
Cost Savings & Consolidation
But more schools than ever face big financial hurdles. One solution has been a push for consolidation - consolidation of service and also consolidation of districts. Two southern Michigan districts have been dissolved already under a law passed this summer that allows state officials to force dissolution and consolidation for some districts in deep distress.
Both Walker and Superintendent Murray say it may make some sense to rethink school district boundaries. Murray even says the idea of consolidation is growing a bit more palatable.
"The financial crisis we're in, I think has made people more willing to take a look at options because in the end it's not the school mascot that's important, it's what kind of quality education each child is going to get," he says.
Murray says larger districts can have an easier time absorbing budget ups and downs, and size can also mean greater efficiency. But he also worries one-size fits all approaches that have been floated around in Lansing could do more harm than good up north, where consolidation doesn't always make as much sense as it does in some of the state's more populated regions.
"The idea of consolidation shouldn't happen just for the sake of consolidation. It should happen because it's more cost effective."
Murray says Leelanau County schools have considered consolidation. Financially, it wouldn't benefit
Meanwhile Suttons Bay and nearby districts are working together more and more, often consolidating services through the intermediate school district.
At the ISD, Hill prefers the term "collaboration." It's a good thing, he says. But he doubts either service collaboration or district consolidation would go far enough to solve the financial struggles of local school districts in the region he serves.
"If we've got districts that are financially stressed, and we do have the majority of our districts are managing their resources in a fiscally responsible way, something has to change. What that is I don't know," he says.
Hill says it's time to at least ask whether the state's per pupil funding system is working.
But for now the emphasis from leadership in Lansing seems to be on cost savings through efficiency.
The Small School
Back at the Flotilla last month, Suttons Bay freshman Will Faught told me he's well aware his school is struggling.
"Oh yeah. I hear it all the time. I mean the system can be a little weird in terms of funding sometimes," he says. "But I like our size now, actually."
Will says in Suttons Bay you'd rarely get cut from sports teams. Others mention easy access to teachers, and the chance to do a lot of activities with less competition, everything from band to drama and student government.
And if the economy doesn't turn around soon, proponents of Michigan's smaller districts may find themselves increasingly making the case for their existence.