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Michigan Radio's Grading Michigan Schools is a multi-part series that takes an in-depth look at education in Michigan. We hear why one college student feels let down by the public school system in the state. We find out about "unschooling," an education philosophy that abandons textbooks and a curriculum. We also look at how the public school system is serving at-risk students through education for the very young and early intervention for kids with special education needs.Support for Grading Michigan Schools comes from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, a founder of the Grand Rapids Education Reform Initiative, and The Skillman Foundation, a voice for Detroit children since 1960.

Districts May Turn to Consolidation

 Nov. 7, 2007
Consolidation may help school districts save money and expand courses. But it comes at a high cost.

As school districts across the state lose students and funding, some are considering consolidation as a way to survive.

Merging one district with another could save money, as well as expand course offerings. But it's largely unknown territory.

One county is considering a merger of its high schools.

The coach of the Hillsdale Hornets is putting his varsity cornerbacks through practice drills on this windy late fall day. There's a lot at stake for Hornets, which last year made it to state semi-finals. The Hornets play for Hillsdale High School, the largest high school in Hillsdale County. Superintendent Richard Ames describes Hillsdale as a small high school with a large school curriculum. But he says the district is facing funding shortfalls from declining enrollment, along with a shortage of qualified teachers. That makes it a struggle to maintain and expand offerings like physics, art, foreign languages, and advanced placement courses. A proposal to merge the county's six high schools into three may threaten athletic traditions. But it's the only solution Ames can see.

Well, Friday night lights is a big deal, and not just in Hillsdale County, however as we look at the future of public education we need to recognize that we are part of a global community and perhaps establish different priorities than we have in the past.

The Hornets might be able to continue the tradition in a new high school. But smaller districts would likely lose their varsity sports teams. That's no small thing when a boy plays for the same team as his father and grandfather once did. Chris Voisin is head of the North Adams-Jerome district in north Hillsdale County. He says athletic traditions are important, but there's a more crucial loss involved in consolidation. His district is so small that the teachers know most of the students by name.

That's something I think families choose, they want that small school with the relationship between students and teacher that's more personal.

Voisin admits that it's hard to stay afloat as the county loses jobs and families move away. But he thinks districts might to able to save money by sharing things like bookkeeping, staff and supplies, without consolidating high schools. He may be in the minority. Most officials in a county-wide education initiative voted in favor of the three-high-school consolidation proposal.

Well, actually, we're trying to avoid what we call the C word

Robert Henthorne is head of the county's Intermediate School District. He prefers a different "c" word - confederation - as a way to emphasize that local school districts would not lose their authority, even if they lost a high school. And he says the new high schools could offer the advanced coursework that some districts don't have now. Henthorne thinks districts in the county will have to take the plunge soon. That's because schools that can't meet the state's new and more rigorous curriculum standards won't be able to hand out high school diplomas.

If we continue to run local fiefdoms, some of our local schools districts will be driven out of business and I hate to say that, I truly hate to say that but I do believe that will happen.

Skeptics says there's little research on whether consolidation saves money. To find schools that have seen gone through consolidation, you have to go to the Upper Peninsula, where job loss and population loss have been going on for a long time.

Twenty years later, it's happening to just about everybody.

Ray Rigoni was Superintendent of Ewen Public Schools in the northwest U.P. in 1966, when it consolidated with Trout Creek Schools. He says small communities depend on their local schools. They lose a lot when the schools shut down. But he says economics can force painful decisions on districts. And he says there's one thing people shouldn't fret about if they have to consolidate their schools.

Forget about the kids, that would be my best advice, they'll adapt. They get along great. It's the parents that can't accept it.

School boards across Hillsdale County continue to debate the merits of consolidating the high schools. And in Shiawassee County, a citizens group is pushing two school districts to consolidate. It could be the start of many more consolidation debates in the years ahead.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.