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School districts around Michigan are feeling budget pains. Dozens of public schools face deficits, as student enrollment has fallen statewide. Fewer students means the state no longer needs more than 540 separate traditional districts. And efforts to help districts merge should be encouraged.

Over the past 10 years, K-12 enrollment in Michigan public schools is down 11.1 percent, falling to below 1.5 million this past school year from just under 1.7 million in 2003-04.

Prior to leaving office in June, former State Superintendent Michael Flanagan said Michigan would benefit from fewer school districts. Along those lines, he recently sent a letter to the Redford Union School Board encouraging it to consider consolidating with South Redford.

This is something that both Redford districts should pursue — as well as many other school systems that are struggling.

Redford officials are holding off for now, however. They are waiting on the introduction of a bill from State Sen. David Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights, which would change how merged districts are funded.

State aid to schools is based on a per-student allotment. When districts combine, they get a blended per student amount plus $100 for each pupil. Under Knezek's plan, the new districts would receive the higher of the merged systems' state aid plus $100 per student.

In Redford's case, the proposal appears to benefit both school systems, infusing an additional $2.25 million into the township. Currently, there is a funding disparity of $524 per student between them. Redford Union is expected to get $7,391 per student while South Redford will receive $7,915.

Creating incentives for districts to merge is a good idea, especially if it would save taxpayers money.

Neighboring Dearborn Heights has several school districts, two with deficit budgets, within its city limits. Clearly, consolidation would make sense there. As it would in Warren, with four districts, St. Clair Shores, with two, and others served by multiple small systems.

In Redford Township, both districts have balanced budgets — for now. Interim superintendent Larry Digon says Redford Union emerged a year early from a deficit elimination plan. The district has privatized and shared services while the staff has taken an 11.5 percent pay cut over the past two years.

All are prudent fiscal measures, but they may not be enough.

School districts are losing students, and they will continue to do so as birth rates remain low. Yet districts are still burdened with fixed costs for buildings, employees and pensions. Schools need to prepare for shrinking student populations. And merging is one of the best options.

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