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School districts' budget picture appears to be brightening

State schools chief Mike Flanagan says schools need to be more proactive about looming financial problems.

The list of Michigan school districts that have budget deficits is shrinking, and more districts are digging out of debt. That was the report today from the state Department of Education to lawmakers.

There are 46 districts on the deficit list today, compared to 50 at the end of last year.

“I’m encouraged that we’re trending in the right direction as far as the number of schools heading into deficit and the number of schools heading out of deficit,” said State Sen. Howard Walker, R-Traverse City, who chairs the Senate K-12 budget subcommittee.      

But the news isn’t all good. There are still a lot of districts with declining enrollments, which means less state aid.

State schools superintendent Mike Flanagan says too many districts are still not making tough choices like closing buildings or consolidating with their neighbors when financial troubles loom.

“Boards need to make some of these decisions earlier if, for example, you’ve lost 50% of your enrollment, you can’t wait five years to cut the number of schools you have,” Flanagan said.      

He added that the Legislature should look at giving local superintendents more budget authority to make the calls that elected school boards can’t. He says no school district has accepted the state’s offer of money to help them make plans to consolidate.      

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.