Anatomy of a Merger

Red SchoolhouseLast week we reported that the Michigan House passed legislation that would give the state the authority to dissolve smaller school districts at the mere whiff of fiscal crisis and force them to merge with a neighboring school district. The justification for this attack on home rule is that it will save money and (much like their case for emergency management) they claim it’s for our own good — just their little way of helping. 

Thanks, but no thanks.

It’s only a matter of time before they attempt similar legislation on municipalities (Michigan’s Constitution be damned), as they find their emergency manager scheme is too costly to justify for struggling villages and townships.

Democracy Tree has already debunked the trio of myths espoused by these lawmakers: that consolidations save money, Michigan pays too much for local government and that the state has too many units of local government. (Although we never grow tired of repeating the story of the three Michigan townships that wanted to merge and put all their services under one roof, forgetting that there was a great big round lake in the middle of their envisioned new township, and their subsequent fight over where to put the firehall.) 

So what does it take to pull off a successful merger?

The simple answer is: a lot of time and and even more money.

The relatively wealthy Bloomfield Hills School District is putting the finishing touches on their decade-long plan to voluntarily merge their two rival high schools, Andover and Lahser, into one large school, to be called Bloomfield Hills High School. The Detroit News reports that the merger has been a rocky road for the community, and not cheap either:

 The plan was part of a $59 million bond proposal approved by voters that drew criticism from parents and students. But as the inevitable merger approaches and school ends for the summer, many have come to accept the changes.

Most school districts in Michigan are treading water with approximately $7,000 in per pupil funding, but not so Bloomfield Hills — they are among the elite with a generous $12,000 package. Yet, they still found it necessary to mortgage the merger process into the millions. (Thankfully, there isn’t a big lake in the middle of the district too.)

The rationale behind this merger is unclear. There is a growing body of evidence that smaller high schools provide an environment more conducive to student achievement — with higher attendance and graduation rates than their larger counterparts. Tangentially, a recent study found that smaller learning groups fostered higher SAT scores, although not due to favorable teacher to student ratios, but attributable instead to an increase in the student’s competitive drive — testing is not perceived as a meaningless cattle call and is taken more seriously in cozier settings.

Legislators recently indicated they at least dimly suspect the part about the high dollar cost of consolidation, illustrated when they tweaked their dissolving-school-law to give a 10 percent per pupil bonus to the “receiving” district for a period of four years. But, that sum won’t nearly be enough to cover the logistics of a forced merger and the inevitable increased salaries the larger district will command. It’s not clear that these lawmakers understand that the larger the body, whether it be public or private, the higher the pay packages expected. 

In an exhaustive meta-analysis from the Indiana Policy Research Foundation titled The Effects of City-County Consolidation: A Review of Recent Academic Literature they found:

“As local governments with differing compensation structures are consolidated, salaries and benefits are often standardized at the higher level.”

Consolidated districts will still have the same student population and will require a relatively similar number of employees to serve those students, much like the study found for police department mergers:

“…police services do not often experience economies of scale as the level of production increases. Thus, creating larger departments through consolidation of police services will not likely lead to lower cost of provision.”

And their analysis touched on the human factor, something lawmakers in Michigan rarely consider.

“The most pertinent conclusion from the literature is that government consolidation can lead to serious morale problems among government employees as distinct government units are merged.”

All this merger-mania comes in the same week that the Mackinac Center for Public Policy continues to trumpet their “report” on how Florida Schools are doing so much better than Michigan’s and at just a fraction of the cost — a conclusion based on false gains as measured through the lens of standardized tests conducted by cyber schools with dubiously credentialed “teachers”. While the wise readers of Democracy Tree understand that these are teach-to-the-test factories, Michigan GOP lawmakers continue to remain among the clueless.

What else happened this week in Michigan education? The U.S. Department of Education is stepping in with a $17.8 million cash injection for some of Michigan’s lowest performing schools.  It’s a help, but trusting the Snyder Administration to allocate those funds properly is a stretch. 

Amy Kerr Hardin




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One Response to Anatomy of a Merger

  1. Fiona Mackenzie says:

    Michigan is ahead of all the other states in eliminating pubic education entirely, replacing it with for-profit corporate education. The people of Michigan were tricked and defeated when they repealed the emergency manager laws that allow the governor (ALEC) to eliminate voter input in state decisions.

    You might want to look at an article called “Sneak Attack” and several others at that site about what is being done to turn over Michigan education to for-profit fundamentalist corporations–that, by the way, do NOT intend to teach science, particularly climate change and evolution.

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