Consolidation just one option in money saving plan for schools

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Capital News Service
LANSING – School district consolidation might be required if legislators follow the draft recommendations of the Legislative Commission on Government Efficiency.
Its report, which is expected to be released before the year’s end, proposes that the state superintendent of public instruction be authorized to mandate school district consolidation to save money.
Martin Ackley, the director of communications for state Superintendent Mike Flannigan, said consolidations would be a last resort. Rather, he said, the superintendent would continue to focus on saving money through consolidating services among districts.
Ackley said that although the new education budget calls for significant cuts in state aid, the Department of Education is working to lessen the impact by giving more flexibility to districts that consolidate services.
“We’re working on parameters now, what we would want to see if the district did commit to consolidating services,” said Ackley.
Consolidation is one of many ideas in the report intended to save the state money in the long term. Titled “Charting a Way Forward,” the report seeks to promote stability through streamlining state institutions.
Mitch Bean, director of the House Fiscal Agency and a commission member, said the goal is to give responsibility for district consolidation to someone with expertise, and the state superintendent was determined to be the best choice.
Consolidation likely wouldn’t happen voluntarily because too many local interests don’t want their local schools to disappear, he said.
Don Wotruba said districts currently merge only if enough residents agree. The deputy director of the Michigan Association of School Boards, said many residents feel that schools give a community identity, and don’t want to lose that.
The association doesn’t oppose considering consolidation, said Wotruba, however, “if a consolidation was mandated, we probably would have an issue with that.”
The state superintendent would need to work with the affected districts in a way that would keep education and efficiency in mind, he said.
Although Robert Olson, the Manistee Area Public Schools superintendent, said he isn’t fully aware of the commission’s proposal, but is concerned about financial differences among districts.
Mismatches among state aid, taxes and district debts might make a consolidation impractical, he said.
His district had looked at merging with Onekama Consolidated Schools in the past, but the state stopped the move over concerns about aid, he said.
“We’re always open to new ideas,” he said. “We just need some answers to do it.”
The draft report also proposes financial to intermediate school districts that consolidate services among their local districts. Services such as transportation and accounting would be shared in an effort to cut spending.
Lawrence Lloyd, the superintendent of Mason, Lake and Oceana county intermediate school districts, said. “I think it’d be wonderful.”
“Collaboration does cost money,” he said. “It does cost money to get these things moving.”
One example is student software used across the three counties. Financial software is also being introduced for the local schools, he said.
© 2009, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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