A Forced Marriage to Intermediate School Districts

School district leaders reportedly threatened

A recent Lansing spat suggests that some school bureaucracies are inextricably bound together in a type of forced marriage. Unforeseen tensions bubbled to the surface at the Capitol last week while the Legislature considered a bill that would allow local school districts to stop receiving services from an intermediate school district.

As reported by MIRS News, Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, claimed that local school districts backed away from testifying in favor of SB 553, which he sponsored, after facing threats of financial retaliation from their ISD. Jones made the claim in front of the Senate Education Committee on Dec. 6.

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The bill would allow school boards to “in-house” services previously delivered by their local ISD. ISDs typically levy taxes for special education and vocational education programs that they administer, and receive federal and state funding for them as well. School districts in many other states operate without this extra layer of support and the inevitable bureaucracy that comes along with it.

Under Jones’ proposal, a school district voting for independence would receive 90 percent of the ISD’s state and federal funds directly. The local district would also receive 80 percent of the tax revenue the ISD collects within the local district’s borders. The ISD would retain 10 percent of all dollars it receives from the seceding district, either from its own levy or from federal and state funds. Also, it would have to refund 10 percent of the taxes it levies from taxpayers in the district.

Taxpayers spend about $2.6 billion on ISDs each year. Nearly half of ISD revenues come from local tax collections, while state dollars make up 30 percent and federal dollars most of the rest.

The groups that represent local school districts and ISD administrators sent their leaders to testify against the legislation, saying that there’s no feasible way to redirect federal special education dollars. They also complained that giving local school boards greater freedom might harm smaller districts that more heavily rely on ISD services. Taking away most of the funds collected through one district, they said, would “greatly decrease or eliminate” an ISD’s capacity to serve the remaining students in their charge.

But legislative fiscal analysts concluded that it’s “impossible to accurately estimate” the statewide fiscal impact of SB 553. By no longer consolidating some administrative services, a local district might have to pay more, but an ISD might also gain efficiency “through increased motivation due to threat of districts’ ceasing to participate.”

And ISDs need to become more efficient. The long-term trend of a hiring spree among ISDs continues. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, since 1993, the number of full-time ISD staff in Michigan has grown by 80 percent, from about 9,300 to 16,700. Over that same time frame, statewide student enrollment has fallen 4 percent, from 1.6 to 1.54 million. There used to be one ISD staffer for every 173 students in Michigan — now there’s one for every 92.

While ISD officials might truly be concerned with the impact of this legislation on smaller districts, it’s odd that they’d be so opposed that they threaten local district officials for speaking out. After all, on its face, this bill should be a boon for ISDs. If a district withdrew, the ISD would keep a portion of the money and not have to provide that district with services. It could then presumably focus on better serving the remaining districts.

Finally, a strong case can be made that local school boards should have the authority to say “thanks, but, no thanks” to ISDs. After all, local districts, at an ever-increasing rate, contract out for all kinds of services for students. Why should they be stuck with just one vendor for certain services?

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