A large financial gift to the public school system in Traverse City might save an elementary school. The last minute offer from an unknown individual has put Traverse City officials in an unusual position.
Traverse City Area Public Schools district has long been a leader in demanding that support for education in Michigan not depend on where a child lives. But school officials say this offer is one they have to consider.
This isn’t a new issue. Infusing private money into public schools is happening nationwide.
Last fall, TCAPS Superintendent Paul Soma recommended closing three elementary schools. Then, last minute at a board meeting in March –as the school board was about to vote– Soma made an announcement.
He said that an anonymous donor was "offering $800,000 to keep Old Mission open." Old Mission Peninsula School is a school that’s costing the district money because it doesn’t have enough students, but it’s surrounded by some of the most expensive houses in northern Michigan.
Because of the financial offer, the decision about Old Mission was postponed.
That means the school with more affluent families might stay open, while a school in a less affluent part of the district –Interlochen Community School– will close.
Meghan Flaska has three kids in TCAPS. Her kids aren’t in either school, but she says when she first heard about the donation she thought, "you’ve got to be kidding me."
"The idea that one particular school could benefit in a public school system doesn’t make logical sense," says Flaska.
Flaska says it’s a generous offer, but accepting it doesn’t send a good message.
"Because I don’t think that fosters a sense of community," says Flaska. "I think it actually enhances the suggestion that there are the haves and the have-nots and that there’s a division."
Leaders at TCAPS have talked about this sort of inequity for years. In fact, they formed a group in northern
Michigan called Citizens for Equity that pushed the legislature to fund schools equally. Something that does not happen. Paul Soma says it’s not fair that schools in suburban Detroit get more money than Up North.
"Talk about schools like Farmington," says Soma. "They get $3,000 more per student than TCAPS. That’s $30 million more per year."
Meghan Flaska doesn’t understand how Soma is upset about state funding and fine with this donation.
"The idea that one school would benefit so significantly beyond the other schools really is disingenuous to an honest discussion about per pupil funding," Flaska says. "And I think it’s hypocrisy at its most creative to say it’s not the same thing."
But Paul Soma says it’s not the same thing. Although he understands some people might feel differently.
"At the same time to hear of an $800,000 donation," says Soma, "for us to somehow suggest that we’re not going to entertain that discussion, I think would be kind of derelict in our duties relative to resources. This is a potential of a new way, a new source, a new something."
Soma says this donation would not lead to inequality because it wouldn’t give Old Mission kids an educational advantage like unequal state funding can. And he says if the donation had restrictions that would give the kids an advantage, school officials would not accept the money.
"Let’s say ... this restriction comes with a guarantee that our class sizes will be lower than everybody else's," Soma says. "That would be something our board couldn’t agree to ... That would be inequitable."
The infusion of private money into public schools has been growing steadily in the U.S. Since 1995, private funding for public education has quadrupled.
Ashlyn Nelson is an associate professor at Indiana University. She and her colleague researched this phenomenon.
"The last forty to fifty years in the United States has seen huge upheavals in school finance reform," says Nelson. "And one of the reactions to not having adequate public financing of schools is that some districts have become pretty sophisticated about raising funding outside of the tax system and have been able to use nonprofits, for example, as a vehicle for raising funding to get the services to their kids that they want."
Nelson says there isn’t a system out there yet that shows how districts nationwide are using private contributions.
"But what we do know from the available information is that this type of private money is for sure exacerbating inequalities in financing and concentrating in relatively affluent areas," Nelson says. "And what this does is essentially upends forty years of school finance legislation that sought to equalize funding across districts."
However, in Traverse City school leaders insist this will not just help one elementary school. But exactly how it would help, what Old Mission would get in return and how long it would last is still unclear. They’re not disclosing what restrictions the offer might come with.
"The overriding goal of the group and the donor," says Soma, "is to find a way to keep Old Mission open in a sustainable fashion."
Soma’s not the only one who says it’s fair for Old Mission to get this shot at staying open. Some Interlochen parents think so too.
Earl Forton has a daughter at Interlochen.
"I think it is fair because they’re trying to keep a school open in their community, and I can appreciate that," says Forton. "And I think that if the tables were turned and somebody from the Interlochen community had donated the same amount of money to keep it open or whatever, that the other school would be supportive that at least one of the schools has a chance to stay open."
And that’s what the superintendent and parents at Old Mission are hoping: that they can save the school.