Fletcher: We nee more bang for our bucks

A school millage election soon will be here. These elections always are important because it really does matter what kind of K-12 education is being offered. The debate is always one of how best to accomplish the daunting task of teaching the basics to our children.

Back when I was attending Alpena schools money was an issue, but easier to address. The birth rate was higher and today’s Baby Boomers were appearing in great numbers in the elementary grades. Then the school’s concern was construction costs of new schools and the millages appropriate to funding expanding programs. Today the reverse is true. Numbers in the school peaked years ago. There used to be nearly 10,000 students in the system while today it is closer to 4,000. And, looking at area statistics of kindergarten students entering the system each year, the pendulum could eventually swing to as low as 3,000. Managing in a downturn is much harder than growing in an expansionary period.

In business and banking there is a saying that you should react to a downturn in business by the formula of “cut deep, cut once.” That doesn’t work here because the decline is pervasive and has already lasted 10 years or more. Before we get to the bottom, if 3,000 is the bottom, it will be about another 10 years. Each child lost to the school system is around a $7,000 loss in funding.

The schools are caught in the middle of a massive tug of war. How do they balance basics like the 3 R’s with extras like sports, music, debate, theatre and others that round out a student’s educational experience? Then there is the tug of war between common sense, state mandates and federal rules about food and safety. The mandates, the concerns of caring parents, the needs for students and the availability of revenue create a tremendous balancing act for school board members. It’s a mess.

Take Posen, for example. There is a district that has used all of its rainy day funds, but today, at least, they are operating in the black.

In many ways small, locally controlled financial institutions face similar problems as the schools. Rural banks and schools are heavily regulated and are losing customers. The solution for the banks has been to merge with other banks to reduce administrative costs and to withdraw services from some small segments of their markets. We can’t withdraw public access to schools.

But we can consider consolidation.

The four high schools of Rogers City, Posen, Atlanta and Hillman are, in my eyes, at least two too many. The multiple superintendents and administrative staffs are redundant. We know that just a short time ago Alpena’s superintendent handled more students with his staff than Alcona, Montmorency and Presque Isle counties have enrolled today.

I support school millage funding but it must be coupled with consolidation of the AMA District’s K-12 systems. I’m a cynic. Be careful about paying more on the promise of further hard choices will be made for the schools before the results are seen. We built all of the above mentioned systems at a time when Northeast Michigan was growing. We aren’t growing any longer – we are contracting. Just like small town financial institutions, we need very robust merger activity. We designed these school systems many decades ago on models no longer applicable. The only change in 40 years was the consolidation of the Alpena City System with the County Schools.

Schools need more local money, but let’s get the most from that investment. Let’s ensure we have we have the latest logistical and educational tools for our administrators to take advantage of.