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Facing declining enrollment, Farmington votes to close schools – but it's not alone

Last night, the Farmington School Board voted to close or consolidate three district schools, including Harrison High School, over the next four years.

Board members in the suburban Detroit district called that a tough decision, but a necessary one in light of declining enrollment – a common situation statewide.

Michigan has about 200,000 fewer school-age students than it did a decade ago.

And around three-quarters of all districts in the state saw some kind of enrollment decline since the 2013-14 school year, says Craig Thiel, a senior researcher with the Citizens Research Council of Michigan.

Since Michigan pays school districts based on how many students they enroll, and those funds make up the bulk of school budgets, declining enrollment puts a big squeeze on budgets.

“The fact of the matter is, [with] school spending … you can’t adjust it as quickly as the revenue decline. So it’s very difficult to keep that budget balance intact when enrollment declines,” Thiel said.

And since state law gives local districts few options for raising additional revenues, that means districts have to resort to cost-cutting measures like closing schools or laying off teachers.

John Austin, president of the State Board of Education, says that against this backdrop of declining K-12 enrollment, the state has loosened restrictions on charter schools and other education providers.

“Our unfettered new school creation and choice policy, combined with the overall reality of fewer students, means that too many schools are competing for too few students, and learning is suffering,” he said.

Austin said these trends have hit urban districts like Detroit and Pontiac especially hard, but suburban districts like Farmington and others are feeling the same dynamic.

“This is a reality that’s coming to your community soon,” Austin said.

Thiel says the state might want to reconsider the per-pupil grant formula. For example, it could guarantee a portion of the grant for fixed costs, because “It just costs something to operate a school district, regardless of how many students are there.”

In any case, Thiel says declining student enrollment is the “one common factor” across financially struggling school districts in Michigan. “It’s a big challenge,” he said.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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