Schools of Choice Takes Financial Toll on Washtenaw County (MI)
June 8, 2010
If all the students who live in the Willow Run school district and attend a traditional public school were enrolled in Willow Run, the district would add nearly $8 million to its budget – currently crumbling under the weight of a $3 million deficit.
Willow Run is far from alone in that predicament. With the schools of choice program on the rise in Washtenaw County, many local districts are seeing potential students – and the dollars they’d bring with them – walk out of the district.
In Ypsilanti, about 500 students who live in the district’s boundaries instead travel to another traditional school district to go to classes. That’s nearly $4 million in revenue lost by the district, which is struggling with a budget deficit of nearly $5 million.
State data shows county traditional school districts lost nearly $22 million this year as a result of students who live within their boundaries electing to attend another district. When enrollment lost to charter schools is factored in, that number climbs to $53.1 million.
“Across the state, there are definitely districts that are winners under this, and there are losers ,” said William Price, a professor of leadership and counseling in the school of education at Eastern Michigan University. “If you’re on the losing end, it’s devastating.”
Locally, the Milan school district is the only clear winner, enrolling many more schools of choice students than it loses. Manchester also enrolls two more students than it loses. The biggest losers are Ann Arbor, Lincoln and Willow Run.
When Sandy Bock’s oldest child was in elementary school, the family built a new house and moved from the Milan school district into the Lincoln district.
But the family had no desire to leave Milan schools.
"The schools are so welcoming," she said. "All three of my kids go there now. They have excelled. Once we found out that it was an option, we signed right up for it. It’s been the best decision for us."
The Bocks are among just over 600 students who came to Milan this fall from another traditional school district.
Milan is seeing a net gain of about $3.3 million to its budget, which is a big help, Superintendent Bryan Girbach said. Each student who comes from another district is accompanied by the state per-pupil funding allotted to his or her home district – a number that varies by district.
“Milan has not done anything to change the district for schools of choice,” he said. “The first year we offered it, we did billboards and advertising. We’ve done nothing since. It’s all word of mouth. (Parents) know that their student is going to learn. We don’t view them any different than the students that live within our boundaries. When you’re a Milan student, you’re a Milan student.
“We’re not out there to compete with other school districts. We want to be the best Milan schools we can be.”
Saline is the only other district beside Milan and Manchester that comes close to breaking even. State data shows Saline lost 63 students this fall to other traditional school districts and 84 students to charter schools. It brought in 134 students through schools of choice, resulting in a net loss of just over $21,000.
Among the other eight traditional districts in the county, none come close to breaking even in the number of students leaving the district versus those coming in through schools of choice.
Nowhere has that impact been felt more than in Willow Run, where the number of students leaving for other traditional school districts or charter schools is up 58 percent over the last five years.
From fall 2007 to fall 2008, the number of students leaving climbed 14 percent. It skyrocketed another 24 percent from fall 2008 to fall 2009, state data shows. That time period matches a time of turbulence in the district, which has been in the red for each of those years and has endured leadership disputes between the school board and superintendent.
The decline in numbers means the district is losing $11.1 million this school year, data shows.
“This decline in enrollment has been gradually occurring over the past 10 years and has a tremendous impact on our funding,” acting Superintendent Laura Lisiscki said. “Willow Run Community Schools has gone through a great deal of changes during the 2009-2010 school year, these changes include the superintendency, the finance director, and the hiring of a special consultant to the Board of Education as well as a stabilization in enrollment.
"This leadership team has already developed realistic plans to move the district forward; these plans include an anticipated acceptance of the deficit elimination plan and several academic offerings to the students."
Lisiscki said the goal is to enroll 50 more students for the 2010-2011 school year.
“Since the change in leadership, the environment within the district has changed," Lisiscki said. "Staff members are working together, supporting one another in all initiatives viewing the future with a positive outlook."
Ann Arbor’s negative net result is mainly attributed to the district’s decision not to participate in schools of choice – but that’s now changing. The school board voted this year to open 170 seats in kindergarten, first grade and sixth grade. Ninety-five students have applied so far.
“With respect to Ann Arbor not being schools of choice, it was getting harmful to the students of Ann Arbor not to have any reciprocal flow of students into the district,” said board member Glenn Nelson, the longest-serving member of the current board.
The district lost $12.1 million this year in potential revenue from students leaving. Ann Arbor allows employees who live outside the district to bring their children there, and that lessens the net loss for the year to $11 million.
Another complicating factor is per-pupil funding. Ann Arbor receives more per-pupil funding from the state than any other district in the county. State rules say each student has to keep the fundin g from the district he or she is coming from, meaning some students Ann Arbor brings in would garner nearly $2,000 less than the rest of the student population.
Nelson said the Ann Arbor school board also had other reasons for electing not to join schools of choice before this year.
“We were not under as much financial pressure (as we are now) and we were aware that overly aggressive schools of choice could hurt other districts," he said. "We didn’t want to be viewed as a bad partner in the county.”
Ypsilanti was the first local school district to opt into schools of choice the first year the state allowed the program. And the district has been aggressive in marketing and recruiting students to come there.
The first year, 67 students came, said human resources director John Fulton, who runs the district’s schools of choice program. This fall, just over 1,000 students used schools of choice to come to the district, most from neighboring Lincoln and Willow Run.
"There were some naysayers then who said, ‘Why would people want to get up and drive their kids to a different school?’ At that point, we aware of charters just coming into play and knew we had to offer schools of choice to be in the game," he said. "Parents had a growing amount of options. We wanted to be one of those options, not only for our parents, but for those who might want to go here."
The number of students coming to Ypsilanti is twice as many as any other local school district gets.
But the district also lost more than 1,700 students to other traditional school districts and charter sc hools this year, resulting in a net loss of $5.8 million due to more students leaving than coming.
That’s concerning to school board member Sarah Devaney, who spoke at a recent school board meeting about the losses at the high school level.
“I think that as a board and district, we need to be concerned about retaining these students,” she said, noting she’d like to see exit surveys done on those leaving the district. “That’s a lot of money. I’d like to see us at a net gain. I think that the level of competition (for students) is going to help the district put together initiatives, programs and even schools to help our students learn. It does put pressure on the district, but the kids are going to win in the end.”
Fulton said schools of choice has been positive for Ypsilanti.
"As your district starts to get smaller, it’s hard to offer all the options for your students," he said. "Schools of choice not only helps the students who come here, but it helps educate others. It’s a bit of a money game. I don’t think it’s hurt us at all."
Not part of the program
Two local school districts – Chelsea and Dexter – are currently closed to students outside their boundaries.
Chelsea Superintendent Dave Killips said schools of choice has been discussed in his district.
“Some of the discussions revolved around the belief that we should be cooperating with other school districts to serve children rather than competing with other districts," he said. "Having expenses spent on marketing and attempting to draw students to our district could be better spent on programming for our st udents. Others spoke to the fact that local tax dollars have been approved by local taxpayers to provide our facilities and system for the children of this school district."
For example, Killips said, if the district sought any local millages – such as a bond or sinking fund – out-of-district families wouldn’t be able to vote on the issues and wouldn’t pay into the improvements that would benefit their children.
“I believe schools of choice has to remain a local issue for each community," he said.