The number of employees for each student in
Michigan’s public school system has been rising for most of the past 15 years,
and now stands at one employee for every eight students. This is surprising,
given Michigan’s declining economy over the last decade and the school
establishment’s perpetual complaints of being underfunded. But even more
startling trends emerge when the data are dissected further.
Between 2000 and 2009, enrollment in all of
the state’s public schools declined by 6.4 percent. However, as illustrated by
the accompanying chart, the number of full-time staff on intermediate school
districts’ payrolls grew by 64 percent, according to data providing by the
Michigan Department of Education’s Center for Educational Performance and
Information. ISDs are government entities that were created in 1962 to provide
services like accounting, auditing and professional development to local school
districts. They can also raise funds for special and vocational education
services. There are 57 ISDs in Michigan.
In contrast to these trends, staffing at charter schools appears much leaner.
It should be noted that the reporting
requirements and methods for ISD staff changed at least two different times
over this period, so some of this growth may be attributable to these
modifications. Some ISDs also failed to report in certain years. Unfortunately,
the Center for Educational Performance and Information is the only source for
this data, and these multiple changes and some ISDs’ reporting failures make it
difficult to draw certain conclusions. Regardless of what report or time period
is used, however, the data show that overall ISD payrolls grew even as pupil
Unlike conventional school districts, where
funding levels are tied to the number of students who attend each year, ISDs
derive much of their revenue from local property taxes. When the housing bubble
was inflating, along with property tax assessments, local millage revenue
funneled ever more cash into ISD coffers regardless of whether enrollment in
their constituent school districts was rising or falling. This allowed them to
hire more employees.
In fact, recent records of ISD revenues
demonstrate this funding arrangement. CEPI shows that local revenue for ISDs
increased by 47 percent from fiscal 2004 to fiscal 2009, outpacing revenue
increases from both state and federal sources. Altogether, ISDs received 37
percent more in 2009 than in 2004. For comparison, total revenues for local
districts increased by 10 percent over that same period.
One of the main drivers of the increase in
ISD funds came through revenues earmarked for special education services. These
revenues increased at the same rate as overall revenues from fiscal 2004 to
2009 — 37 percent. Yet, full-time equivalent special education enrollments at
ISDs increased by only 8 percent.
Some of the revenue ISDs receive for special
education is transferred for use at the local districts. In these districts,
the number of special education staffers grew by 7 percent from 2004 to 2009,
but enrollment in special education programs in local districts over that period
decreased by 5 percent.
The growth of ISD payrolls could be a result
of the transfer of some operations from local schools to the ISD level. This
would be in keeping with the original intent of ISDs — to create cost-saving
economies-of-scale and consolidate services. If this is what has been
happening, then one would expect to see a corresponding decline in staff levels
at the local district level.
That’s not the case, however. Student
enrollment in local districts has fallen by 9.8 percent since 2000, while their
full-time staff numbers are down 8.5 percent. These figures do not suggest any
significant transfer of services to the ISDs.
In contrast to these trends, staffing at
charter public schools appears much leaner. From 2000 to 2009 their student enrollment
increased by 97 percent, while the number of staff grew by just 79 percent.
Unlike ISDs, most charter school funding is tied almost exclusively to the
number of students — not property tax receipts — so operating efficiently and
avoiding a glut of non-essential employees is critical to their success.
ISDs will claim correctly that over this
period the Legislature has given them more duties to perform, which would
account for some marginal increases in overall staff levels. However, the very
large increases suggest that something else is going on, and that a
cash-strapped state should re-examine the role of this middle level of school
management. Rather than creating efficiencies and economies-of-scale, ISDs may
have become what they were intended to alleviate — excessive layers of
Michael Van Beek is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center
for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in
Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided
that the author and the Center are properly cited.