Touchy Topic: Should School Districts Be Countywide?

Get set for a fight between communities throughout Michigan and Lansing. Mike Flanagan, the state's top education official, wants to discuss a radical change: Moving from local school districts to countywide ones.

Mike Flanagan, the state's top education official, is tossing out a hot-potato idea.

He'll kick-start the debate, which obviously will be intense, by issuing a report this week on benefits of having 83 school districts instead of about 550.

That sets up a showdown with local school boards, educators and parents over a bedrock issue: local control of schools.

Here's how English teacher Marcus Napthen of Belleville High puts it in a front-page Free Press article: “The school is the center of the community.”

Flanagan floated the idea at a legislative hearing last month, education writer Lori Higgins reports in that story atop Sunday's front page. Flanagan, whose title is superintendent of public instruction, believes enrollment declines and financial swings would be easier to absorbed with fewer districts and many major functions run at the county level.

Higgins outlines the policy issues:

With a record number of school districts sinking into a deficit, and two districts possibly on their way to being dissolved, . . .Fanagan is urging drastic action — such as converting Michigan’s nearly 550 districts, 56 intermediate districts and nearly 280 charter schools into countywide school districts.

If that can’t be done right away, he said, the state should give more power to intermediate school districts so operations such as transportation and food services can be consolidated.

Flanagan predicted that countywide districts or his hybrid option could save millions — money he said could be used to teach students. But little, if any, research supports his position.

Higgins sets the stage for resistance to what she calls "a one-size-fits-all mandate:"

The change would be a controversial move in Michigan, given uncertainty among educators over whether it would save money and about the ripple effect it could have on jobs and local control. Many school leaders are already expressing concern.

The Free Press writer summarizes two approaches envisioned by Flanagan:  

  • The state could eliminate its local school districts and organize schools by county — there are 83 counties in the state — or by intermediate school district. So a county such as Oakland, with 28 individual school districts and 28 individual superintendents, would become one district with one superintendent and 180,274 students.
  • A hybrid option would place more power with the state’s intermediate school districts by transferring all non-instructional services — such as transportation, business and food service — to the ISDs. Local school districts would focus solely on instruction. The ISDs, for instance, would handle transportation for the entire county, rather than each district having a transportation department. Eventually, some instructional services would be handled at the county level, too, Flanagan said. . . .

A full switch to a countywide model would require legislative approval, and Flanagan said he expects sizable opposition. The hybrid option, he said, is the one to embrace immediately — though it, too, would require a change in state law. 

Maryland, Florida and Virginia are among states with countywide school districts, Higgins notes.

Gov. Rick Snyder hasn't taken a position yet on the possible change.

Read more:  Detroit Free Press

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