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What would happen if we consolidated schools into county-wide districts?

More and more of our local school districts are in financial trouble, and State Superintendent of Schools Mike Flanagan has a couple ideas as to what we can do about it.

As I discussed briefly last week, he is proposing either going to a system of county-wide districts, or, if that won't fly, at least consolidating and centralizing administrative and some academic functions at either a county or a regional level.

He‘s talking about transportation and janitorial and food services, but also things like staff training and curriculum development. I found these ideas intriguing.

So much so that I talked to him at length about it, and also to two men who are down in the trenches every day in one of our more fortunate school districts. Fred Proctor was principal at Groves High School in the affluent Detroit suburb of Birmingham for a dozen years before taking early retirement at age fifty-six last month. 

Proctor, who has been running a large high school with some thirteen hundred students, told me he wasn’t leaving because he was worried about education in this state; he just wants to change careers and find what he called “that next big adventure.” 

He thinks some facets of the superintendent’s plan make sense. He told me Birmingham was one of the first districts in the state to privatize janitorial and food services. “Everybody said it wouldn’t work, and the school has never been cleaner,” he told me.

He told me they got a similar result when they privatized bus service a few years ago. Yet he has his doubts about the effects on academics. He noted that in a letter to legislative leaders, Flanagan said he thought one of the benefits of consolidation could be “a more equitable education for all students.”

But what Proctor wants to know is whether in practice this will mean, “leveling up or leveling down.” Birmingham has long prided itself on the quality of its public education, and he doesn’t want to lose that. Incidentally, Groves is one of the more truly diverse schools in the region, with significant numbers of minority students. Proctor was its first African-American principal.  But one of his teachers is much less welcoming to the state superintendent’s proposal.

Scott Warrow is both a Groves English teacher and president of the district’s union, the Birmingham Education Association. He thinks this is just another ploy by the governor and the legislature to eventually privatize education.

“What has been going on is an attack on public teachers and their unions,” he told me. He thinks the public schools would be fine if the state would just give them all the money they have cut over the past decade or so. But even he admits there would be no great harm in consolidating services like busing and janitorial work.

Flanagan believes consolidation would give the schools more resources, and actually free them to do what they do best -- teach.

He hopes to interest the leaders of the legislature’s education subcommittees in his ideas when they meet at the end of this month. The one choice which seems totally wrong would be to do nothing.

More local districts are running deficits than ever, including some of the state’s largest systems. But sadly, doing nothing about major problems lately seems to be what our lawmakers do best.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.

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