Do you remember the movie Indecent Proposal? The movie, released in 1993, starred on-screen couple Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson. It also starred Robert Redford as a handsome billionaire. Redford’s character becomes so smitten with Moore’s character after meeting her in a casino that he offers the couple, who just lost their life savings, a million dollars for one night alone with her. That dilemma left moviegoers asking the question how much money would it take for you to compromise your values? Today, Michigan public school districts are facing that same dilemma.
Recently, Michigan schools have been struggling financially because of stagnant or reduced funding created initially because of a poor economy, and more recently because Republicans favor business tax cuts over adequately funded public schools. So knowing that schools have been struggling, wealthy entities have been offering up money with strings attached, much like Redford’s character did. The first to do it was the Federal government who offered states a chance, not a guarantee, of extra money if they adopted Race to the Top legislation. Michigan made the reforms yet received no money. The next entity to take advantage of the dire financial times was the State of Michigan itself. Newly empowered Republicans offered extra money for adopting their “best practices” including taking steps down the path toward privatizing district services. Quite a few districts adopted those “best practices” whether they agreed with them or not. Now, local intermediate school districts (ISDs) are employing the same tactic. Since ISDs are funded in a different manner than local school districts, their funding has been more stable. In fact, some have enough in their fund equity (rainy day fund) that they could operate for an entire year without any new revenue!
The Wexford-Missaukee ISD, located in the Northwestern portion of the lower peninsula, decided to use some of their fund equity to incentivize local schools to adopt their common calendar. Michigan law already requires that schools follow the ISD’s calendar for things like Christmas break and spring break. However, this ISD wants districts to follow their schedule without any variance. The reason they want a common calendar is logical. Local school districts send about 15% of their K-12 students to the ISD for trade skills and some special education services. When school districts have differing days off for professional development or for other events, it causes some disruptions in the ISD classes. The problem is that the school districts also have unique needs and priorities of their own.
The Pine River Area Schools (PRAS) is one of the schools that was offered money to adopt the common calendar, and they were willing to do so save one day. In 2012, thanks to collective bargaining, PRAS became the first in the area to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day by closing school so that students and staff could conduct acts of community service. Around the Pine River school district community projects like shoveling snow and making dresses for women in Haiti were undertaken. The day was a great success and the PRAS decided that they were going to celebrate the day again in 2013. Pine River Area Schools suggested that the ISD could follow their lead and celebrate the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday with a day of service instead of classes. That would allow Pine River to continue its day of service and still receive $57,000 for adopting the common calendar. However, the ISD leadership said they were “not interested.” Yet, the ISD did schedule the day off for the opening day of deer hunting season.
Pine River Area Schools was offered an indecent proposal and they said no. So Pine River students and staff will once again take to improving their community by performing service projects on MLK Day. Meanwhile, the ISD’s $57,000 will sit in a bank account providing zero impact on the education of the kids in the communities they serve. It is pretty easy to see who is staying true to their values in this scenario.
Update: Wexford-Missaukee ISD Superintendent Scott Crosby contacted me (and my employer) to express his opinion about the value and accuracy of this post. He took issue with the post because it was a “public attack on a local public education provider coming from a local public education employee. ” He did not feel the post was accurate because “The calendar was set unanimously by a vote of the seven local school district superintendents.” While I respect Mr. Crosby’s opinions, I stand by my post. The point of the post was to criticize the tactic of paying districts to make changes rather than advocating for those changes based on their merit, especially in a time where these entities have excess money and the local school districts do not. I also feel it is well within my right as someone who pays taxes to this ISD to criticize them for not providing unconditional support for local school districts. I do not believe that because I am a public employee that I should be forced silent on matters in the public domain. In fact, protection of such criticism, known as whistleblowing, has been protected by federal law since 1863.