December 17, 2014
Off the record

If you want to start a controversial discussion, bring up school consolidation in Michigan.

By Jim Grisso|Special to the Independent
Email Jim
Posted 7/22/09

State Rep. Kevin Elsenheimer (R-Bellaire) plans to tackle the issue when the Michigan Legislature reconvenes next month. Get ready for a knockdown, drag-out battle, but Kevin is the man for the job. And as House minority leader, he is in a position to get some answers.

Elsenheimer knows of what he speaks when it comes to school consolidation, or lack thereof. His home base, relatively small Antrim County (about 24,000 population), has no less than six school districts with a combined student enrollment of 4,125, according to latest available data. (Interestingly, tiny Alba with about 200 students K-12 leads the six districts in terms of percentage of enrollment growth in recent years.)

Duplication of services? That’s the question.

Is school consolidation a means to reduce educational costs and effective elimination duplication? Elsenheimer told me last week prospect deserves at least a look-see. On the other hand, the think tank Mackinac Center for Public Policy says forcing smaller school districts would not save a significant amount of money. That was its finding in a recent study.

Nevertheless, Elsenheimer plans to go on a fact-finding mission, fully aware of the political pitfalls that lie ahead. Education is only part of the equation. The loss of school identity will be the biggie on the minds of many.

“Potential loss of athletics and school identity is a major challenge,” Elsenheimer told me. However, he cites the fact Michigan’s total school population has dropped more than 100,000 students in the last seven years -- a warning that something has to give.

He figures school districts essentially have two choices: they can voluntarily make an effort to consolidate services, staff, etc. or they can do it “at the end of a sword,” as he put it -- in other words be forced into consolidation under a legislative plan.

He prefers the voluntary way with the state passing on various financial incentives to districts that reduce costs by merging operations, in one form or another, with neighboring districts. Obviously, this remedy would be less painful.

Elsenheimer sees some form of school consolidation inevitable as long as state revenue continues to decrease at its present rate. He believes the state may have to cut school reimbursement back to 2006 levels.

“I certainly don’t see the need to build new buildings when there are good ones nearby,” he said. “How many students can we effectively fit into a building? We need to figure it out, and we need to use our assets more wisely.”

To make his point, Elsenheimer singled out the new Parker High School in the Howell school district built at a cost of $72 million. It opened in 2007, and the very next year the doors were closed and students were funneled back to the old Howell High School. “Budget restrictions and limited income” were the reasons for closing. No plans to reopen.

I like Kevin’s approach to the school consolidation issue. And I give him credit for tackling it head-on. But, then, knowing him the way I do, I wouldn’t expect anything less. Unfortunately, he won’t be around long. He will be forced out of the legislature next year due to term limits.

From a personal standpoint, I know school consolidation can work. When I was a rookie reporter in Indiana in the early 1960s, the Hoosier state went through the process when the legislature passed a law forcing consolidation. It was a battle royal politically, even within families.

Almost 50 years later, I believe the Hoosier consensus is that it was a good move that saved lots of taxpayer money while protecting quality education.

Have at it, Kevin...

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