Remember last year when Michigan lawmakers hastily created special legislation for the sole purpose of dissolving two small school districts, Inkster and Buena Vista, when they found themselves in fiscal crisis?
Well, that law is still on the books, and could be invoked again.
Public Act 96, the law to dissolve smaller fiscally distressed school districts was intended to “solve” a problem not covered by another egregiously stupid law, Public Act 436 — the emergency manager law. Smaller school districts — those with under 2500 students, teetering on the verge of succumbing to financial pressures were simply deemed not worthy of the expense of an emergency manager. So, lawmakers decided to do away with them altogether.
The law may be invoked if all of these four criteria are met:
- Failure to submit a deficit elimination plan or failure to win state approval of their plan.
- The district is determined as not fiscally viable.
- Student population is under 2500.
- The district incurred a 10 percent, or greater, decline in enrollment in the previous school year.
Of course, there is a fifth consideration not written into the law: Is there a neighboring school district in a position to absorb the dissolved district?
In Democracy Tree’s analysis of the most recent report from the Michigan Department of Education to the State School Superintendent, Michael Flanagan, 24 small school districts are at varying degrees of risk for triggering the provisions of the dissolution law. These schools are among 50 currently on the state’s watch list which are experiencing different levels of fiscal stress and are below the 2500 enrollment threshold, or just barely above it.
Like other kinds of disasters, the MDE report categorizes school districts into various stages of fiscal distress:
- Category 1 is composed of districts starting the school year in deficit but projected to emerge in the black by June 30, 2014. They are 8 in total, with 5 below the 2500 enrollment mark.
- Category 2 are those districts that started the year in the red, and are projected to end with a reduced deficit. This is the largest category, with 28 total, including 10 smaller districts that could fall into the dissolution black hole, and another 5 treading water at just above 2500 in enrollment.
- Category 3 are among the least likely to survive — they began with a deficit and expect to end with even more red ink. Their total number is 8, with 2 below 2500 in student population.
- Category 4 is a limited group of districts that will be venturing into negative territory this year after a positive start. There are 4 altogether, with 2 vulnerable to the dissolution law.
Readers are probably wondering who these districts are — here is the list:
Category 1 Districts (Low risk)
- Atlanta Community Schools, 268 students, 2013 deficit ($31,842)
- Ashley Community Schools, 269 students, 2013 deficit ($225,307)
- New Haven Community Schools, 1345 students, 2013 deficit ($236,549)
- Menominee Area Public Schools, 1560 students, 2013 deficit ($53,664)
- White Cloud School District, 1069 students, 2013 deficit ($580,276)
Category 2 Districts
- Mackinaw City Public Schools, 192 students, 2013 deficit ($345,160)
- Beecher Community School District, 1363 students, 2013 deficit ($701,015)
- Hancock Public Schools, 831 students, 2013 deficit ($514,291)
- Mt. Clemens Community Schools, 1574 students, 2013 deficit ($3,586,719)
- Vanderbilt Area School District, 141 students, 2013 deficit ($221,573)
- Bridgeport Spaulding Community Schools, 1464 students, 2013 deficit ($3,221,274)
- Perry Public Schools, 1397 students, 2013 deficit ($1,689,022)
- River Rouge School District, 1233 students, 2013 deficit ($1,107,736)
- Ecorse Public School District, 1044 students, 2013 deficit ($1,809,903)
- Heart Academy, Wayne, 171 students, 2013 deficit ($344,498)
Category 2 Districts (just above 2500 enrollment) These schools are included because fiscal crises are strongly linked to rapidly declining student populations.
- Benton Harbor Area Schools, 2826 students, 2013 deficit ($15,517,748)
- Dearborn Heights School District #7, 2850 students, 2013 deficit ($1,769,214)
- Hamtramck Public Schools, 2900 students, 2013 deficit ($3,443,659)
- Redford Union Schools, 2893 students, 2013 deficit ($1,962,334)
- Westwood Community School District, 2798 students, 2013 deficit ($6,311,270)
Category 3 Districts
- Albion Public Schools, 734 students, 2013 deficit ($149,003)
- Bangor Public Schools, 1254 students, 2013 deficit ( $373, 350)
Category 4 Districts
- Iron Mountain Public Schools, 1117 students, projected deficit ($158,473)
- South Lake Schools, 2133 students, projected deficit ($1,828,396)
Democracy Tree has written previously on how the actual expenses incurred by dissolving Buena Vista and Inkster school districts have already exceeded their combined deficits, with additional costs to be anticipated. A report from the Citizens Research Council found the law deeply flawed, and worried over possible future applications. The CRC painted PA-96 as a poorly thought-out fiscal boondoggle in which the cure is worse than the disease. They asserted that emergency management was even preferable to dissolution.
State government, through its adoption of the new policy, is signaling that some financial problems cannot be solved without the aid of additional funds. If this is the case, then it might be appropriate to provide these resources sooner, through an emergency manager process, rather than as a last resort.
Rep. Douglass Geiss (D-12) represents two of the school districts that were forced to absorb students from Inkster Schools when the district was dissolved. Although he did not vote for PA-96, he soon found himself scrambling to provide adequate funding for Taylor and Romulus schools as they were suddenly hit with thousands in additional expenses that were not covered by the legislation. Inkster and Buena Vista schools were dissolved in haste — only five weeks before the beginning of the school year.
It took Geiss from September of 2013 to April of 2014 to secure additional funding for maintenance of the shuttered school buildings foisted upon Taylor and Romulus. Each “receiving” district was finally appropriated $1 million to deal with the crumbling facilities. One of the buildings, Geiss said, “had been abandoned probably 20 years ago — it had a tree growing out of its roof.”
A couple of days ago, Rep. David Knezek (D-11) introduced legislation (HB-5446) that would amend PA-96 to provide a mechanism for dissolved school districts to reorganize — although it’s doubtful they would want to reopen the buildings shown above from the defunct Inkster district. The bill was referred to the House Committee on Education, which is chaired by Republican Lisa Posthumus-Lyons — the lawmaker who referred to teachers as swine when debating whether to dissolve Buena Vista and Inkster schools.