Last week I read a report on the growing financial crisis in Michigan’s school districts, more than half of which are now either in deficit or dangerously close to it.
That’s bad enough. But what really caught my eye was a statistic for the White Pine School District in Ontonagon County, off n the western part of the Upper Peninsula.
White Pine got special mention in the Gongwer News Service report because its deficit amounts to almost half its operating budget.
But that’s not what drew my attention. What knocked my socks off was the number of students it has: Ninety-five.
Actually, the website says the entire district has an enrollment of ninety-three students. Many are poor. The median income there is only $16,000 a year. No wonder they can’t make ends meet.
Nearby Ewen-Trout Creek Consolidated School District is running a deficit a third the size of its budget. It has a whopping 326 students, fewer kids than in most elementary schools elsewhere.
Clearly, Michigan schools are in crisis for a lot of reasons, most of them financial. This is true not only of public schools, but charter schools, also known as public school academies. With the growing layoffs and buyouts in the auto industry, it seems clear that things are going to get worse in many places.
Addressing some of these problems will be difficult until the state’s overall economy improves. But here’s something we can do something about, right now.
Michigan needs to eliminate some of these hopelessly tiny school districts, consolidating them or merging them into stronger districts. Even in good times, it makes no sense to have an entire school system, with all the bureaucracy that entails, for 93 students
Understand something. This is NOT an old-fashioned plea for big government. There are those who think Detroit’s school system would work better if it were split in two, and that might be worth examining. But it simply makes no administrative or financial sense for this state to have more than 500 school districts.
Why do we have so many districts? Well, a lot of them were established way back when in pioneer days, and just endured.
And knowing human nature as I do, I can tell you that turf wars are a major reason more of these haven’t been merged or consolidated before now. You see, the Hopelessly Tiny School District and the Hopelessly Teeny School District may not have much, but they each have a superintendent.
If you combine them into one district, there will be only one superintendent, and other front office jobs may be eliminated. Guess who is going to oppose any merger. The state legislature and the people need to start doing something about this.
By the way, White Pine solved its problem -- sort of. The kids were sent to two other districts, and the district essentially dissolved itself … though it is still collecting state revenue to pay on its massive debts. There has to be a better way.