My recent analysis showing that staffing levels at intermediate school districts grew significantly over the last decade — even as the number of students in Michigan public schools fell — drew some criticism from Dr. David A. Spitzley, an employee of the Washtenaw ISD. Dr. Spitzley points out that the data provided by the Michigan Department of Education's Center for Educational Performance and Information are inconsistent over time in some respects. Nevertheless, no matter how one slices the data, it still shows that ISD payrolls expanded while enrollment contracted.

Among Dr. Spitzley's observations is that the system for collecting the number of regular school district and ISD employees changed in 2002 which may have resulted in both kinds of districts reporting more staff after that date than before. Thus, part of the apparent ISD employee increase after that year may be an artificial product of no longer under-reporting the actual figures.

While this and other factors make it harder to compare ISD staffing level changes for periods that overlap the change, the trends I described remain even during times when there were no such complications. For example, from 1996 (the earliest data available) to 2002, ISD staff grew by 35 percent, while statewide enrollment increased just 3 percent. In other words, there was one ISD employee for every 210 students in 1996, and one for every 161 students in 2002.

Analyzing the data from 2002 onward faces additional challenges. For 2003, CEPI shows no data for three ISDs (Hillsdale, Kent and St. Joseph), and information from Kent is missing again in 2004. Still, even if data from these three ISDs is discarded, staffing levels in all the remaining ISDs grew by 28 percent from 2003 to 2010 — a period when student enrollment decreased by 7 percent.

Another issue deals with reporting changes that occurred in 2006 due to new school safety laws. Once again, changes in the procedures caused an increase in the number of employees reported to the state, and some of the apparent ISD employment increase since 2006 may just be the product of changed procedures.

And once again, when periods before and after the change are separated, the data still show that ISDs continued to add staff at roughly the same pace. From 2003 to 2006, ISD staff grew by 9 percent (not including Hillsdale, Kent and St. Joseph) while overall enrollment declined by 1 percent. Similarly, from 2007 to 2010, ISDs added 9 percent more staff, even as enrollments fell by 5 percent.

The ISD employment increases are even more remarkable in light of the fact that many more districts (both ISDs and conventional ones) are using private contractors to perform some functions, which would seemingly reduce their reliance on consolidating services through ISDs. Since 2001, the number of school districts that have privatized custodial, transportation and food services has increased by 58 percent. This will reduce the number of employees who are directly on school payrolls.

CEPI's Financial Information Database also suggests that employee compensation levels at ISDs have also grown sharply. This format for this detailed fiscal information from all ISDs has not changed since 2004. From that year to 2009, total compensation for ISD employees increased by 31 percent, or by 15 percent when adjusted for inflation. Over the same period, total student enrollment statewide fell by 5.5 percent. This equates to an inflation-adjusted increase in per-pupil ISD employee compensation of 22 percent between 2004 and 2009. Taxpayers now spend $644 per pupil to compensate ISD staffers.

While Dr. Spitzley raises some interesting issues regarding the limitations of state data, none of them change the fact that ISD payrolls have ballooned while the total number of students in this state has shrunk.