State superintendent proposes mass school consolidation

State Superintendent Mike Flanagan is proposing the consolidation of  local school districts into countywide districts.

Countywide school districts and service consolidation were mentioned a lot in the news this week, as State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan floated those ideas as a way to trim costs and help financially struggling schools.

While details haven’t been released yet, Flanagan told multiple media outlets moving to countywide districts — or some hybrid system that gives intermediate school districts more power — could save millions.

He contends streamlining non-instructional functions like transportation, food service and administration would be more efficient, and the dollars saved through consolidation could be streamlined back into the classroom.

Florida, Virginia and Maryland have countywide school districts in place, but a one-size-fits all model of school consolidation in Michigan is receiving some criticism and skepticism.

“Before I can embrace it or be opposed, I really need to see the data to see if it does indeed save significant resources and if it will indeed help improve instruction,” said Chris Wigent, superintendent for the Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency, the intermediate school district for Wayne County, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Judy Pritchett, chief academic officer for the Macomb Intermediate School District, told the Free Press she is “concerned about being able to meet the needs of all of the students in an effective way.”

MEA favors providing a clearer, more consistent structure to the process of consolidating school districts. The current hodgepodge of mechanisms and rules for consolidation fails to provide for a smooth transition into consolidated operations.

Instead, the consolidation process should be streamlined, creating one well-designed path to consolidation that local school boards and communities can vote to approve. This process should provide for adequate time to create the new district, should preserve employees’ jobs to the degree needed for the new district, and preserve the job rights and representation for employees consistent with state law.

A 2011 study from Ohio University researchers found that state-mandated consolidation often does not save taxpayers’ money, and can actually increase taxpayers’ financial burden through added administrative and transportation costs.

That study found reducing the number of superintendents fails to take into account that larger school districts will require more mid-level administrators. School consolidation also costs taxpayers more in transportation costs, as students have to be transported greater distances — particularly in rural areas.

The study’s authors recommended that consolidation only take place on a case-by-case basis, as opposed to “statewide mandates” that “always prove arbitrary and often prove unworkable.”

“While state-level consolidation proposals may serve a public relations purpose in times of crisis, they are unlikely to be a reliable way to obtain substantive fiscal or educational improvement,” the authors stated in the report, “Consolidation of Schools and Districts: What the Research Says and What It Means.”