Source: Sherman Publications

Skilling weighs in on countywide school districts

by Trevor Keiser

July 17, 2013

As a way to fix the problem so many school districts operating in deficit, State Superintendent Mike Flanagan is asking lawmakers to consider creating countywide school districts.

Michigan currently has 549 school districts 56 intermediate districts, and 277 charter schools. Other states with countywide districts include Maryland, Virginia and Florida.

“From my experience as both a local and intermediate school superintendent, I believe that it makes sense to realign in this configuration – providing administrative efficiencies and a better ability to utilize state funding; better absorb the enrollment fluctuations one local school district might be suffering; and providing a more equitable education for all students,” Flanagan wrote to the chairmen of the Appropriations Subcommittees on K-12 Education for both the state House and Senate.

While realizing there would be “so many forces that would be supporting and defending the status quo system,” Flanagan proposed a “hybrid system” to start with. Under this system, central administrative and academic functions would be transitioned over to Intermediate School Districts (ISD), such as transportation systems, curriculum development, staff training and development, educator evaluation systems (but not the evaluations themselves), education technology, school accounting functions, school food services, assessment coordinating and building-level data collection and reporting.

Under the hybrid system, Flanagan also said there would still be local school districts with school boards and local administrators.

“Local districts would be able to focus primarily on getting their students to higher levels of achievement and on educator evaluations. The school building is the center of the community,” he explained. “It is my belief that the only way to save the local school buildings is to make the districts that serve them more efficient to save money and more effective to increase student achievement.”

“With these economies to scale,” continued Flanagan. “I am confident that it would save millions of dollars minimally and I would want to ensure that all cost savings would go back to the classroom.”

Whether it really will save “millions of dollars” is up for debate. Oxford Superintendent Dr. William Skilling is urging caution.

“I think we have to be very careful,” he said. “We continue to want to apply simple solutions to a complex problem. There isn’t a one size fits all (solution.)”

“The idea that we haven’t thought about this before and we haven’t looked at leveraging our resources as a county of schools is not true. There is not a school district and county that has not been sharing services,” continued Skilling. “That’s already happening.”

Since his tenure began with Oxford in 2007, Skilling said they’ve done two studies regarding the idea of a countywide school transportation system and determined it doesn’t save money, but costs money. However, he does believe there could be a savings if they did geographical regions of four or five districts sharing, but it doesn’t work for regions like Oxford, Brandon and Holly, he said because they have “large geographical districts, but low population.

“I think (the) Oxford (school district) is about 96 square miles and we have approximately 5,000 seated students,” Skilling said. “If you were to take a radius from the downtown office here of three miles you would probably encapsulate at least 85 percent of our student population.”

Director of Education Policy for the Mackinac Center Audrey Spalding agrees Flanagan’s proposal is an “old idea” and like Skilling is skeptical.

“We (the center) did a 2007 study on school size and like other studies found that there is such a thing as too big,” she said. “Any proposal that would require wholesale district consolidation, at least looking at our research, would not appear to yield savings and would cost more.”

Handing over more services to county Intermediate School District (ISD) would also cost more, said Skilling, who noted Oakland Schools offered to handled Oxford’s human resources services like they do for other districts, but Oxford found it was cheaper to do it themselves.

Another example is virtual education. Skilling said it would have cost more to pay the fees Oakland Schools wanted versus doing it in-house.

“These aren’t criticisms of the ISD when I say that, I am just stating a matter of fact that it doesn’t always pay to consolidate,” he said. “Do I think there is some benefit in having some consolidation in services? Yes, but the ones that make sense we’ve already done.”

Spalding also said that many of the districts that are in deficit are larger in size, so she doesn’t see how consolidation would fix the issue because they’re not in deficit due to size, but due to poor financial decisions.

“Consolidation is kind of an easy thing to propose. It doesn’t really hurt anyone’s feelings if you say, ‘Oh, we need to consolidate,’” she said. “The reality is that the problem is a little more ego-bruising. It’s that you didn’t adjust as you needed to when students left because your district wasn’t meeting their needs or that you are paying your employees too much. Those are harder issues to address, but those are the ones that Michigan needs to take a look at.”

While Skilling is not favor of going countywide in every district in Michigan, he does see a need for smaller districts to consolidate with one another.

“When you have districts (with) 600 to 700 kids, those kids in the high school are having to sacrifice opportunities because you can’t possibly offer them the same opportunities (as districts with) say 3,000 to 5,000 (students),” he said.

According to Skilling, going countywide and under the rule of one superintendent will also not save the money people think it will, due to having to pay “area superintendents” and additional layers of administrators.

“Look at Oakland Schools and how many layers they have and they’re not running any district,” he said.

He also said having one superintendent for an entire county creates a “tremendous amount of inefficiency and stifles innovation and creativity.”

“It will create a ‘herd mentality’ where everybody will have to do the same thing. You will not have lighthouse districts like Oxford Community Schools who are willing to take risks and innovate in order to provide kids better opportunity,” he added. “To me, that’s a giant leap backwards.”