The cruel answer

The Grand Rapids Press jumps ahead of a bill in Lansing, and recommends a package of bills that would dissolve insolvent school districts such as the notorious case of Buena Vista, outside Flint. These districts had it coming because they have been “irresponsible.”

It’s irresponsible for school districts to decide to close their doors early because they’ve run out of cash.
In fact, it’s irresponsible to run out of cash, even in a time of continued enrollment declines, which reduces state aid. Good leaders know how much money they have to spend and plan accordingly, even if that means painful cuts or finding innovative ways to do things.

Well, maybe.

Consolidation and charges of irresponsibility are something of  a cruel response, given Lansing’s own actions.

The record of stress on the school districts is rather well documented. With few exceptions (GRPS being one) most districts have actually seen their level of financial stress increase in the past four years, sometimes dramatically. This is available on the Citizens Research Council dataset. The notion that school districts have suddenly been afflicted with inability to make decisions is at best half a story. A more complete discussion would also include the questions as to the source of this stress, and here the Republican party must bear the blame with its policies of tax cuts and compensating revenue shifts away from education generally, and the local schools in particular. Second, the other determining factor has been that of declining enrollment, driven by both economics (Recession) and school choice.

What is true, is that with small districts the combination of declining enrollment and shorted funds can be especially dangerous. This was noted earlier this year by State Superintendent Tom Flanagan.

 At one point, talking about relatively small districts with declining enrollment, Flanagan said “you’re smoking something” if possible consolidation isn’t part of the discussion.  “I just think if you’re (at) 400 (enrollment) and sinking and you don’t try to find a dance partner next door,

But if the small school district can’t do it by itself, what’s the solution? The proposed county-wide consolidation is hardly the magic bullet The Press thinks it to be. Rather it is the classic kick the can down the road: a vote for the status quo in the guise of actually doing something —  no one imagines Kent County consolidating.  It’s a polite washing of one’s hands. A bolder press would be taking the Republican policies to task for deliberately jeopardizing the future of Michigan’s children with its lamentable combination of revenue shifts and half-baked reforms on the cheap.


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