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Schools that can’t follow deficit elimination plans could be dissolved under new bill

Chart by Lucy Perkins, and Mark Brush.
Lucy Perkins, Mark Brush
Michigan Radio

State lawmakers are working on legislation they hope will prevent another crisis like the one in the Buena Vista school district. Students there sat at home while school was closed for two weeks last month because the district couldn’t afford to pay its teachers. Buena Vista is not alone; a number of districts have had problemskeeping their doors open because of financial problems this year.

One of the bills’ co-sponsors, State Representative Bill Rogers, says those kinds of emergencies are unfair to students, who have to scramble to find another school.

“We have got to come up with a plan to make sure the kids are educated, period,” Rogers said.

The proposal (currently House Bill 4797 and 4798) would affect schools that submit a deficit elimination plan that isn’t going to work, or that fail to submit one altogether. It would give the state treasurer and state superintendent the authority to dissolve the struggling school district. The state would work with the intermediate school district to find a way to send students to one or more neighboring districts quickly.

About 50 districtsare currently required to submit deficit elimination plans.

“We’re a home rule state and we’re trying to make sure that (local elected leaders) can have every opportunity to work out things,” Rogers said, “but when we get this far in, some of this is we’ll use the term ‘politically sensitive’ but regardless of that, that’s not thinking of the children, it’s thinking of the adults.”

Although district consolidation is already an option, it isn’t always a popular one locally. Recently Willow Run and Ypsilanti schools decided to merge in an effort to save both districts from financial insolvency or an emergency manager.

“Their boards and their superintendents stepped up and did the right thing before they got into that position. Unfortunately others are not doing that,” Rogers said. The Republican from Brighton co-sponsored the bills with David Rutledge, a Democrat from Ypsilanti.

Rogers says they’re working on a third bill that may incorporate the current two. Given the number of districts facing growing deficits, Rogers thinks the bills stand a good chance of passing before the start of school in the fall.

“I think (lawmakers) understand that it’s unfortunate but it is necessary so that we don’t have to deal with these issues as an emergency situation frequently,” Rogers said, referring to the rush to get funds the state sent Buena Vista schoolsin order for them to reopen.

Buena Vista schools had a deficit elimination plan in place when school started in the fall. So it’s not clear if this new proposal would have prevented the school from running out of cash. However, Rogers says the bills would have outlined immediate next steps to make sure students were in back in class as quickly as possible, even if that meant they were in another school district.

Buena Vista schools is currently under a preliminary review that could result in an emergency manager. But the preliminary review can take up to 60 days. After that, Governor Rick Snyder has 10 days to respond to the review. Then the process gets more complicated; depending on how school officials respond it could take even longer to come to a resolution.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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