Consolidation vs. cooperation

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Consolidation of public school districts as a way to save money is on the front burner again in Michigan, but many districts say they're already saving cash by sharing services, according to media reports around the state.

The discussion centers on a study by Michigan State University's Education Policy Center that concludes Michigan could save up to $612 million a year if smaller school districts consolidated into larger operations, mainly through economies of scale and eliminating duplicative services.

Lesser amounts could be saved by sharing services like accounting and transportation without complete consolidations, the report said.

The study was jointly commissioned by eight affiliated Michigan newspapers. The Kalamazoo Gazette reported that many school districts already are sharing employees or contracting for services with private firms or with other school districts as a way to trim spending.

"If we can merge our support services for technology and business and food services and maintenance and still maintain our community identity, we'll have the best of both worlds," Sue Wakefield, superintendent of Plainwell Community Schools, told The Gazette.

Consolidation supporters say it would offer more course options to high school students in small districts and would help retain teachers, the media reports said. Opponents say smaller districts offer smaller class sizes and more personal attention, and questioned if predicted savings would be realized.

"I'm tired of the simplistic battle war cries for consolidation that don't factor in all the variables that are going to differ from district to district," Godfrey-Lee Public Schools Superintendent David Britten told Michigan Capitol Confidential.

Several media reports cited a 2007 study by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy that concluded that consolidation would save money in some cases, but would be impractical most of the time. That study, "School District Consolidation, Size and Spending: An Evaluation," also concluded that the state would save more money by breaking up large districts than by merging smaller ones.

The Mackinac Center publishes Michigan Education Digest.

The Kalamazoo Gazette, "School districts in Southwest Michigan moving toward merging operations to save money," Aug. 15, 2010

Mackinac Center for Public Policy, "School District Consolidation, Size and Spending: An Evaluation," May 22, 2007

Michigan Capitol Confidential, "School Consolidation is no 'Silver Bullet,'" Aug. 17, 2010