Dissolved districts may find way to get back in business

By NICK STANEK

Capital News Service

LANSING — School districts that were dissolved may have a chance to reestablish themselves under legislation designed to address potential dissolution of more districts.

Rep. David Nathan, D-Detroit, who recently introduced the bill, said no mechanism exists for school districts to reestablish themselves. The bill would give intermediate school districts the power to elect a new school board for dissolved districts.

Schools in low-income neighborhoods have been facing deficit issues as a result of cuts to education funding and declining enrollment. Ironically, many families moved to these neighborhoods because of their public school systems, Nathan said.

“A city like Inkster would not exist without its school system,” Nathan said. “Without a school system, these neighborhoods will not attract anyone to live there… I do know that there is a sense of identity loss when you don’t have a school district.”

Most public schools are funded by state aid based on enrollment and by local taxes. Tax breaks to encourage local business and declining enrollment are the main forces sending districts into financial turmoil, said David Crim, spokesperson for the Michigan Education Association.

“Never before have we had so many districts in deficit spending,” Crim said. “It begins with alarge cut in funding by Gov. Rick Snyder and the legislature.”

Declining enrollment is one of the most common issues facing schools in financial distress be-cause state funds are allocated to schools per student, said Bill DiSessa, communications special-ist for the Michigan Department of Education. Many districts rely on state funding to exist.

“The deficit situation is caused by declining enrollment,” DiSessa said. “The districts we’ve seen get state aid foundation grants and they give millions of dollars to people every year. For exam-ple, if the state gives a district $7,000 per student each year but each year the school’s enrollment rate drops by one hundred, the school loses a lot of funding for services that provide students with an adequate education. That could cause them to dissolve.”

Concerns over education funding for public schools flared up last year after Inkster and Buena Vista dissolved their school districts. Although they are the only two to do so last year, nearly 50 school districts around the state are dealing with the same financial problems Inkster and Buena Vista did prior to their dissolution. Crim said cuts to school funding have caused “chaos” for public schools around the state.

Surprisingly, some schools that remain open are struggling with issues as serious as the ones that closed.

“The sad thing is many of [Inkster’s] students were relocated in schools that are in worse finan-cial condition that Inkster was when it dissolved,” said Rev. Joseph Stephens, president of the Inkster Ministerial Alliance, a group that lead the community during the dissolution.

Other schools met the original criteria of the law that dissolved Inkster, he said, and were on the path to closing. By law, neighboring school districts must accommodate students from nearby districts that dissolve. When Pontiac’s school district was facing possible dissolution, residents in affluent districts that would have to take in Pontiac’s students pressured lawmakers into chang-ing the criteria and saved it.

“If you pay attention to the cuts that have been made to local school districts, they have put a tremendous burden on the state and their finances,” he said. “The Buena Vista school district could not reopen in 2013 and best thing they thought was to dissolve so students have some-where [else] to go.”

“Unfortunately, you have powerful people in Lansing who think they can just walk over low-income neighborhoods and not face any consequences,” he said. “Pontiac would have dissolved too but they changed the criteria in the law that only restricted it to Inkster and Buena Vista.

Both Nathan and Stephens said the issue in school funding comes down to race.

“It comes down to a black and white issue, unfortunately,” Stephens said. “We don’t like to go there and tend to refrain from using that argument, but that is the reality.”

Inkster’s students were reassigned to four surrounding districts and the predominantly white dis-tricts put up the most resistance to their integration, he said.

Nathan said school districts being hit the hardest by cuts in funding are predominantly African-American communities. The well-being of Michigan’s African-American children is among the worst in a country, the Michigan League of Public Policy said in a press release.

“There are disadvantaged students of all races now. That doesn’t necessarily mean that if students come from a poor neighborhood that they don’t do well,” DiSessa said. Many of the students who don’t do well in low-income schools usually fail as a result of the environment, he said.

Nathan blamed politically conservative lawmakers for being a barrier in education, citing their lack of willingness to support public education.

“They would rather spend money on corporate interests than to invest in a traditional neighbor-hood public school,” he said. “Corporations are designed to make a profit and public dollars is a good way of making profit. They are not doing this for free.”

One of the reasons schools have been losing enrollment is because businesses that provide a job market for low-income families are relocating or closing, DiSessa said.

Crim partially blamed the funding problems on tax cuts under the Snyder Administration.

“Large corporations received $2 billion in tax cuts,” he said. “The last cut was made on the premise it would create jobs and reduce unemployment which was around 9 percent when [Snyder] took office. Now, it is just below 9 percent so by any measure it has not created jobs and billions of dollars were cut out of education.”

“Charter schools operate independently but receive public funding,” DiSessa said.

Nathan said many of the schools in financial distress are also losing their students to charter schools. If passed, the bill would put more emphasis on public spending for school districts that are in financial distress.

The bill was co-sponsored by Reps. Woodrow Stanley, D-Flint, and Phil Phelps, D-Flushing, and send to the committee on education.

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