Sunday, April 8, 2007

Why do education funding articles lack balance?

I wondered whether the headline in today’s front-page story came from an MEA press release:

Oakland Press: Teachers fear pink slips; reform of Proposal A suggested (04/08/07)

It was full of sources bemoaning “revenue problems”, with one lone parent tucked in the middle suggesting that schools look at their spending.

The article begins with “Johnny’s favorite teacher might not return to school next year”, but offers hope of “a callback in the fall if money becomes available to their school district”, as if more money is the only possible solution.

The article completely ignores the possibility that districts might’ve gotten themselves into the mess in the first place.

The article quotes Joan Sergent, executive director of the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education. (Her office is based at the Oakland Schools intermediate district. Who's paying for that office?)

She wants a “stable funding source… one with regular inflationary increases

How is it that she is unaware of the state-funded report by the Anderson Economic Group that has shown – several times – that state funding has increased 59.6 percent since Proposal A was passed, compared to an inflation rate of 24.9 percent? The report can be viewed by clicking here.

The article goes on to sites the finances of two neighboring districts:

The Avondale School District is also among the many districts facing formidable budget challenges, with a $2 million deficit and no fund balance. Rochester is also in deficit spending, but has a $30 million fund balance to cushion the blow over the next few years.

But there was no mention of the “dueling editorials” that ran in The Oakland Press regarding the subject of merging those districts. I had suggested looking at consolidation as a way of saving $1.2 million per year. The Rochester board showed no interest and the Avondale board completely rejected the idea. The series can be viewed by clicking here, and much more can be reviewed under the "School District Consolidation" category on the right side of this blog.

Then, just two weeks ago, the Rochester board approved a budget-busting teachers contract. The spending associated with that contract will increase 6.4 percent next year. That equals $357 per pupil, or DOUBLE the best-case scenario in revenue increases out of Lansing. (I have two blog entries on this here and here.)

This is entirely the result of local control, and has nothing to do with Proposal A or state funding.

State Representative Tim Melton (D-Pontiac) suggests the Education Committee in the Michigan House is looking for an “11-point Plan” to address spending and revenue. “Consolidation (of services) is in first place. But I don’t think it is going to solve the problem,” said Melton.

He’s absolutely right. Consolidation of services means that schools will share some services, and typically looks at non-instructional items such as bus service.

But that is only going to save pennies. Consolidation of services assumes that consolidating “the worker bees” in school districts is going to bring new efficiencies.

From what I’ve seen, it’s not the worker bees that need to be addressed; it’s instead the matter of school districts duplicating effort, with administrators who are only miles apart essentially doing the same thing.

Oakland County has 28 school districts to educate 200,000 children. There are academically high-performing districts around the nation that have 35,000 to 50,000 pupils. Consolidating Oakland districts down to 5 districts could save $180+ per pupil per year – totaling $36 million – just in Oakland County.

But even district consolidation – with it’s substantial savings – only addresses waste and is not a complete solution.

The true culprit is the excessive annual spending increases that administrators propose, and school boards approve.

The insulting part is that these school boards seem oblivious to the problem, and engage in hand wringing instead of problem solving.

As an “outsider” I was always puzzled why that happened. It wasn’t until the Rochester board’s vote on the teacher’s contract a few weeks back that it became crystal clear to me.

There is a prevalent belief statewide that that much of the spending increases in schools are automatic, and uncontrollable. (I address that in a blog entry here.)

Indeed they are, given that boards view these increases as nothing short of an entitlement.

Statewide, school boards and administrators feel powerless, and cannot think of any solution except ask for more money, or lay-off teachers.

The problems in Michigan’s public education system are unlikely to change until school boards and administrators face the real issues get over their fear of trying new solutions.

==> Mike.

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