Clawson Schools Exploring Closure/Merger Options, Public Meeting Oct. 28
(Drew Saunders, Oct. 22, 2019)
Clawson, MI- Clawson Public Schools is in a financial bind. Superintendent Tim Wilson said at a public meeting last week that the district’s near term financial situation is unsustainable in the long run, and that unless something changes soon drastic changes could be necessary; with the choice being to either close a school or merge into another school district.
“Sometimes we all have to make sacrifices, but this has gone on too long,” Wilson said midway through his presentation. “We are not being fair to our teachers.”
The district has been keeping itself financially stable by not keeping up to date on technology and putting off pay raises for its faculty according to Wilson. Several of the teachers Wilson mentioned received rounds of applause when he asked them to stand at Wednesday’s meeting, thanking them for their sacrifice. A further 13 positions have been cut in the last two years and Wilson says that they can’t cut much more.
There are two reasons the district’s fund balance is getting smaller, both of which are problems that can be found in school districts across the state.
Firstly, fewer children are being born in Michigan. According to the Michigan Department of Community Health, the state birth rate has gone from 136,048 births in 2000, to 114,717 in 2010 and 110,093 last year. And since the amount of funding each district gets is based on the number of students that are enrolled, dwindling student numbers means less and less funding.
At the same time, parents have more and more choices of where to send their students. Charter schools are more and more available statewide, and the more parents send them there, the less money the regular school district has. Clawson makes up for some loss by being a school of choice, meaning that about 500 out of 1,477 come from outside Clawson to attend. Even with school of choice, their total number of students is still down over the long run.
Clawson gets $8,529 per pupil, according to the Michigan Department of Education. The district is not in a deficit yet, but will be if the downward trajectory of their fund balance is not corrected.
“Clawson maintained a positive fund balance at the end of Fiscal year 2018 and hasn’t contacted the Michigan Department of Education to inform us that the district is going into deficit. There is a process in state law that requires local districts to create Deficit Elimination Plans when they go into deficit to turnaround their financial condition,” Martin Ackley, Director of the Office of Public and Government Affairs at the Michigan Department of Education said.
“The Michigan Department of Education will receive the district audit and comprehensive financial reporting by November 1,” Ackley added.
The amount that Clawson gets per student is slightly above the minimum set up by state law, according to Rod Green, a consultant that the district has hired. He said that the funding gap between districts is much better than it has been historically, but the gap still exists.
“There are 300 charter schools in Michigan now, whereas in 1990 there were zero. So instead of 540 [school] districts, you’ve got 840 districts. I don’t know how many charter schools are around Clawson … but it certainly [is] a factor in many of the districts that have lost enrollment,” Green said, in an interview by phone. “The nice thing about Clawson is that they’ve managed their fund balance and finances reasonably and they’re looking forward.”
Clawson is looking at two potential solutions to this situation; closing facilities or merging into either Troy or Royal Oak Public Schools. Green said that there would be “economies of scale” benefits for either district to absorb Clawson, but that step isn’t inevitable.
Royal Oak’s Communication Specialist Sarah Hunton told the Oakland County Times that no “formal conversations” about annexation or a merger have taken place. Troy public schools did not respond to a request for comment.
The other option would be to close or shutter one of the schools and rearrange where students go. Doing this would boost the district’s finances by several hundred thousand dollars per year and give a onetime boost of a few hundred thousand from selling, or possibly leasing out part of, a building. But even if Clawson did this, it would only buy the district a few years of breathing space.
Decisions are far from being made, but it is time for discussion and community input.
Parents and residents will have the chance to provide more of their input directly at the next meeting on this topic, on October 28. The community will have two hours to discuss which option to take at the high school auditorium, starting at 7 p.m.