Michigan schools make tough cuts amid student decline

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Michigan’s shrinking student population is squeezing school districts statewide, forcing many to close classroom buildings and make other painful cuts as enrollment-based revenue dries up.

Over the past decade, K-12 enrollment in public schools is down 11.1 percent statewide, falling from just under 1.7 million in 2003-04 to below 1.5 million this past school year.

The factors causing the decline include the rise of charter schools, tight state funding and a societal trend toward smaller families. Public school districts are losing students but remain saddled with fixed costs for buildings, employees and pensions that can’t be shed easily.

Education experts and demographers say districts need to prepare for even fewer students in the years ahead.

“The question is whether school districts can handle the truth,” said Kurt Metzger, founder of Data Driven Detroit, a public policy and data analysis organization. “Declining enrollment, combined with lowered state funding and high teacher pension costs, have resulted in a perfect storm for many districts. This is especially true for districts that have refused to recognize and acknowledge the trends that have been there for a number of years now.”

Metzger, who also is mayor of Pleasant Ridge, analyzed enrollment numbers for The Detroit News and said the decline is especially pronounced among younger students. Since 2000, K-5 enrollment is down 15.1 percent, which, he said, “indicates the trend of student loss will continue.”

Some districts already are slimming down.

Ferndale schools, for example, project revenue will drop from $33.4 million last year to $31.9 million in 2017-18. In the five years after that, Superintendent Blake Prewitt said the district expects another 6 percent drop.

In response, the school board voted in March to close three buildings over the next two years. Jefferson and Taft schools have been closed and Wilson will shut at the end of next year.

Prewitt said the changes are “right-sizing” the district, which had 2,879 students in 2014-15. “We are using about 50 percent of our building space within the district. When you combine all of our buildings, we could fit between 6,000-7,000 students,” he said.

Ferndale High’s marching band practices. The school board voted in March to close three buildings over the next two years.

Other districts have been hit hard, too. Since 2000, Romulus Community Schools’ enrollment is down 24.9 percent, according to Metzger. Farmington Public Schools, which sparked controversy last month with discussion of possible school closings, is down 12.3 percent.

Outstate, districts with large losses include Muskegon, down 22.2 percent; and Algonac, down 32.3 percent, both since 2002.

In Muskegon, where enrollment fell from 6,965 in 2002 to 4,066 this past year, the district downsized after Superintendent Jon Felske was hired nearly five years ago. “We went from eight elementary schools to five, from two middle schools to one and we had one high school, which we still have,” he said.

Felske said Muskegon and similar districts face an uphill battle to stabilize enrollment, partly because of the Schools of Choice program, which allows transfers between districts.

“I’d say the three major reasons for the decline are fewer births, more students going to charter and parochial schools and most importantly, more students opting for Schools of Choice,” he said. “So you’ve got the same amount of districts chasing a smaller number of students.”

Algonac Community Schools Superintendent John Strycker projects enrollment will fall 11.7 percent in the next five years, taking the St. Clair County district from more than 2,500 students in 2002 to 1,500 by 2020.

To adjust, the St. Clair County district closed two elementary schools in June and is consolidating grades K-12 and administration offices into three buildings. The moves will save $1.5 million.

Strycker sees other benefits from getting smaller. “I told my board not to worry about losing students,” he said. “Let’s not fear this. The smaller we get, the better we’ll know our students and the higher student achievement outcomes we can get.”

But in a January report, a Michigan public policy group warned the state’s enrollment drop and retirement legacy costs threaten public schools’ ability to effectively educate students.

“If unaddressed, these problems can develop into significant sources of fiscal stress, making it difficult to deliver quality educational programs and services,” states the report from the Citizens Research Council, written by senior associate Craig Thiel.

Reserves at risk

According to Thiel, districts face using up reserves, cutting teacher pay and slashing programs when their main revenue source — the pupil count — falls. Michigan doles out most school aid under a formula that, starting in October, sets a base rate of $7,391 per pupil.

“Something like 80 percent of their operating resources come from the state per-pupil grant,” Thiel said. “When enrollment declines, a big chunk of their finances goes down.”

Justin Marlowe, a professor of public finance at the University of Washington, said Michigan districts, especially in the suburbs, face falling populations of school-age children and shrinking tax bases. “During the baby boom of the 1950s and 1960s, families who lived in affluent suburbs often had four or five school-aged children,” he said. “Today, those same families have one or two kids.”

Thiel said the rise of charter schools also has siphoned students from traditional public schools. Since 2000, charter enrollment has doubled, to 141,094 in 2014-15, state data show.

In Romulus, lower enrollment and funding forced the district to close two schools in 2011 and negotiate 14 percent pay cuts for the staff in 2012-13. Custodial service, maintenance, food service and transportation were outsourced.

Jonathan Turner plays the vibraphone during Ferndale High’s marching band practice last week.

Superintendent Marjie McAnally said the concessions were needed to avoid receivership. Romulus faced a $2.3 million deficit in June 2013.

“We anticipated the decline in enrollment due to the decline in birth rate nationwide, but what hit us the hardest was the increase in charter schools, health care, benefits and pensions for our employees,” she said.

By June 2014, the district had eliminated the deficit, but McAnally said Romulus isn’t out of the woods, because dollars for classroom teaching are stagnant as retirement costs soak up aid increases.

In Farmington, revenue fell nearly 15 percent from 2006-14, from $171.8 million to $157 million. At a meeting last month, officials discussed “repurposing” from two to five schools from a list of six buildings.

A consultant hired by the district says closing Harrison High would save about $1.5 million. Savings would be $870,000 from closing a middle school and $490,000 per elementary school.

Five years ago, the Farmington district closed four elementary schools and an office building.

Besides Harrison, also mentioned for possible closure are Beechview, Highmeadow and Kenbrook elementaries and Warner Upper Elementary and O.E. Dunckel Middle schools.

‘Rich history’

The district has set four forums next month to discuss options. “We need to maximize all of our resources to provide the best teaching and learning opportunities for all of our students,” said Superintendent George Heitsch.

The talk of closings has upset families.

“Harrison High School has such a rich history and is such a unique place because it represents what our county looks like,” said Laura Miesner, parent of four Farmington students and president of the Lanigan Elementary PTA. “I hope the district can ... come up with other solutions than closing schools.”

Districts can face fierce resistance to closures or mergers.

In Bloomfield Hills, falling enrollment led school officials to push for joining Andover and Lahser high schools in a new building. But voters twice rejected bond issues for construction.

After years of wrangling, voters passed a $58.7 million issue in May 2012, allowing the district to build the new Bloomfield Hills High School that will open to about 1,800 students next month.

Spokeswoman Shira Good said Bloomfield Hills’ experience shows the need to alter how Michigan pays for education. “The bottom line is that the funding model must change,” she said. “We are a fortunate district in a good position, thanks to taxpayer support and good financial management, yet we are struggling to maintain the opportunities we value.”

The color guard practices at Ferndale Middle School. Superintendent Blake Prewitt said school closings are “right-sizing” the district. “We are using about 50 percent of our building space within the district,” he said.

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Staff Writer Gary Heinlein contributed.