Politics Alive and Well in Public Schools

Brandon board won't sell vacant building to charter group

School boards are sometimes held as shining examples of democracy at its finest — where constituents’ and children’s best interests are truly represented.

This is in contrast to the simplistic narrative of what happens in Lansing and Washington, D.C., where rich lobbyists and power-hungry politicians rule the day. A recent story from a mid-sized Michigan school district, however, demonstrates that even at the local level, political self-interest can and does drive decision-making.

The Oakland Press reported that the board of the Brandon School District decided to demolish a vacant school to prevent a local group of residents from buying the facility and opening a new public charter school there. The school board fears that although the district would profit from selling the building, it ultimately would lose money because state aid once destined for its coffers would wind up going to this new charter school instead.

Of course, for this to happen, parents in the district would have to choose to enroll their children in the charter school over schools run by the Brandon school board. With this in mind, it becomes clear that the school board is attempting to protect its own self-interest (i.e., revenue stream), but doing so at the expense of preventing Brandon children from accessing different public school opportunities.

To be fair, a Brandon school district official says that the local charter school group is only offering one-sixth of the value of the facility. And demolishing the building instead of offering it up to a competitor is not necessarily "wrong" either: The school board is protecting the bottom line of a school district that serves thousands of students and parents.

But this action raises several questions from the perspective of taxpayers in Brandon and those statewide. For example, should the Brandon school board use taxpayer resources to intentionally deprive children the opportunity to attend a different public school? Why should taxpayers pay to protect the school district’s virtual monopoly of publicly funded school services?

This example from Brandon illustrates that school boards face and act on a set of incentives to protect and expand their power — similar to those so clearly displayed in Lansing and Washington, D.C.

Not all school boards behave the same way Brandon is here, but nevertheless, realpolitik is a powerful force even in our local public schools.