On Rightsizing Local Government and School Districts
Almost lost in Gov. Jennifer Granholm's 2007 State of the State Speech was a brief mention of the carrot being offered to local jurisdictions to reduce the cost of wrongsized local schools and governments. In tough times big and small businesses are forced to get more efficient just to survive, but one of the greatest inefficiencies in Michigan is the sacred cow of township government and small school districts.
The truth is there are only a few dozen of our state's more than 1,200 townships that provide significant services that couldn't be provided more efficiently by another local government organization. Michigan also has hundreds more school districts than it needs. The rest are a waste of taxpayer money. But township governments are a sacred cow that John Engler was keenly aware of, but he refused to commit political suicide by doing any more than suggest the need for reform. Same thing with the school districts. Eliminating unneeded township governments could provide hundreds of millions of dollars of savings to taxpayers. It could be higher, but noone is really looking at the size of local entities as a problem.
One of the myths perpetuated by both small school districts and rural townships is that local is better. Like all myths, there is a kernel of truth there. But when standards and rules are dictated by federal and state edicts, local control doesn't really exist. Local officials can only determine how to implement, not what is to be implemented and organizations that are too small are notoriously inefficient at implementation. Many of the smartest local officials already recognize this and are making some effort to change.
But while most similar sized states to Michigan number their school districts in the dozens, Michigan has more than 500 local school districts and another 57 regional educational service districts. Perhaps it made sense to have that many school districts when it took hours to travel five miles, but when miles can be covered in minutes and seconds, it is a waste of taxpayer money to allow small inefficient school districts and townships to continue in operation.
Years of tax and budget cuts now have taken most fat out of local budgets and taxpayers now are paying to have their kids participate in extracurricular activities in Michigan's wrongsized school districts. But small local school districts are still political sacred cows.
In our Isabella County we have school buses from different school districts traveling on the same county roads and three school superintendents and costly administrative staffs where one would do fine. By some estimates savings of 20 to 30 percent in local education could be saved by rightsizing Michigan school districts.
By rightsizing we mean just that. Most of Michigan's more than 500 school districts are too small to take advantage of economies of scale, but a few are too large to manage effectively, most notably, the Detroit Schools.
It is refreshing to see that Gov. Granhom is acknowledging the problem exists, but tossing a carrot to local jurisdictions to work together is just a band-aid on a large open wound. In her last term she has the opportunity to do something meaningful after few of the sacred cows accept the state grants for doing what they should have been doing more of -- learning how to get smarter and more effiicient by working together.
Pushing for real reform by rightsizing Michigan schools and townships will probably take more stick and less carrot in the future. But a few bucks spent on estimating more accurately the potenial waste of the wrongsized jurisdictions could be a first step towards real reform. We need better roads and more money spent in our classrooms and less on the administration and inefficient structures of Michigan's wrongsized local jurisdictions.
Could Michigan save taxpayer dollars and get better services by eliminating half of its local school bureaucracies and would Michigan taxpayers be better off with hundreds of fewer township governments? You betcha.