The education system in our country has taken a beating the last dozen years or so. Take a look around and you see schools rubbing coins together to make dollars. And they aren't rubbing four quarters together to make a dollar, they are rubbing four quarters together to make $100 - and it isn't working.
Everyone knows how local schools are struggling and making cuts, hoping to stay in the black or, more likely, not plunge further into the red. In the last month or so Buena Vista School District and Albion Public Schools both made news - neither instance was positive. Add Pontiac to the mix because that school district could be heading toward an emergency financial manager.
Buena Vista closed its doors, only to reopen and then have problems paying staff. Financial woes are a theme in Michigan with education. We all remember the recently failed millage sought by the AMA ESD that affects Alpena, Atlanta, Hillman and Alcona schools.
Albion's school board decided not to have a high school next year. Imagine a community's school not having a high school. Think about Posen and Rogers City, or Hillman and Atlanta. Those are four places where communities are close enough that consolidation would mirror Albion's situation. If there is an elementary school but no high school ... how does that look and feel? Hard to imagine.
Not as much in big cities, but in small communities like those in Northeast Michigan, a school is one of the major identifiers for a community. People take pride in their local school, but would pride disappear if that school ended in the eighth grade?
Albion, Pontiac and Buena Vista aren't the only three. A record 55 school districts in Michigan are operating in deficits, including Alpena Public Schools. According to a story by the Associated Press, 10 of those schools are expected to get back into the black this summer.
But think about that for a moment - 55 school districts. There are 549 school districts in the state. That's 10 percent of all school districts in the state that are operating with a deficit. According to the AP story, there was one school 10 years ago that had a $1 million deficit; there are 30 with that large of a deficit at the end of this school year.
State Superintendent Mike Flanagan said the state should consider moving toward county-wide school districts. Mr. Flanagan, Alpena and Alcona basically are county-wide school districts, and there are more around the state that way.
Flanagan's contention likely is aimed at counties with big cities, but what about cities that overlap counties? Do those schools split up? Those students could find themselves uprooted, no fault of them or their family. The costs of reorganizing and realigning schools could be extremely high. Is that really a solution, adding more costs to schools that can't handle an extra burden?
"Oftentimes we lose things in bureaucracy. It's good to have competitive districts with charters or schools of choice," Rep. Terry Brown, a Pigeon Democrat, told the AP. "Are we bettering it for kids or are we making our job as state legislators easier by closing schools?"
As for Gov. Rick Snyder? He blamed dropping enrollment and bad financial planners in some districts in the AP story. He agreed longer-term school funding issues should be discussed in the next few years but questioned why districts such as Ann Arbor built new high schools knowing negative demographic trends.
Next few years? Discuss them now.
Some will argue the trend is directly connected to the loss of jobs and poor economy in Michigan. Another factor is smaller families, meaning fewer children. And then there are charter schools that draw students to them as well.
The fact is they are all factors, but none are the straw that broke the camel's back. With so many factors, pinpointing the one that did in schools is impossible. Nor should we be looking for blame, but rather solutions - lots of them. Bring every idea to the table and let the smart people in the room figure it out.
Offering solutions is the job of our elected officials, and they need to do more than give it lip service. We talk about jobs being Priority 1, well education is Priority 1A.
We need jobs to keep our best and brightest, and to lure others here. But if we don't have a good educational system then they aren't staying either because they won't want to raise a family where their children won't get a good education.
The state's educational system is stuck between a rock and a hard place and someone needs to pull out a chisel.