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School Daze

Rick Coates - August 8th, 2011
School Daze: Government mandates, lack of funding are the lesson plan for fall
By Rick Coates
One has to wonder if school districts need to bring back corporal
punishment. This time, not for the students as they seem to be getting
punished enough by Lansing and Washington D.C., instead, perhaps, school
superintendents need to get out those old wooden paddles (the ones with
the holes in them) and deliver some corporal punishment on the legislature
and governor.
When students return to school this fall, changes will be aplenty. Recent
governmental mandates and a lack of funding are requiring school districts
across Northern Michigan to reevaluate their approach to educating
Some districts have already begun to outsource everything from busing to
cafeteria and custodial operations. Others have begun cutting the arts,
physical education classes and even eliminating junior high athletics or
going to a pay-to-play program for high school athletics.

Now, with the new budget/debt ceiling deal being reached last week,
schools are faced with the possibility of additional financial cuts from
federal sources. In addition to funding challenges, Michigan schools are
looking at new standardized testing requirements and core-curriculum
So what strategies are Northern Michigan school districts implementing to
handle these new challenges?
Mike Hill is superintendent of the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School
District (TBAISD) which serves over 24,000 students in Antrim, Benzie,
Grand Traverse, Kalkaska and Leelanau counties.
“For us at TBAISD these national and state-mandated standards put more
pressure on us because we are the leadership organization for these five
counties for professional development for our teachers,” said Hill. “Now
add in the budget cuts and our school districts are looking to us even
more to provide additional services. So our challenge is to make sure that
all of our school districts meet all the mandated standards.”
The largest school district within the TBAISD is Traverse City Area Public
Schools (TCAPS) with 10,000 students.
“It appears that we are going to be faced with sparse resources and more
government mandates for the years to come,” said Alison Arnold, director
of marketing communications & volunteer services at TCAPS. “We formed a
25-person committee to look at our future and what we are going to have to
contend with and we will be unveiling this plan in September to the

Two weeks ago the Michigan Department of Education announced new proposals
for the accreditation process for schools. According to a recent article
in the Detroit News, “accreditation is awarded based on a school’s
compliance in six areas related mostly to administration and school
organization. Schools can self-report data to the state, including staff
certification, state curriculum compliance and school improvement plans.”
The proposed changes would make accreditation based on standardized test
scores alone. According to Jan Ellis, Michigan Department of Education
spokeswoman, this revised accreditation system would make schools more
accountable to parents and the public. Citing that “schools rarely lose
their accreditation under the current system and that fewer than 50
percent of the state’s students are proficient in writing, and 238
Michigan high schools have zero college-ready students, based on the
spring 2010 ACT exam. We see this new system as the best way to determine
if schools are failing or passing.”

Both Hill and Arnold have issues with the standardized testing as the sole
determining factor for accreditation.
“Certainly this proposal if passed will add to challenges we are currently
faced with as the state recently raised the standardized testing (MEAP)
proficiency levels for students, meaning that the testing will become more
rigorous for students; and at the same time they are raising these levels
the state is redoing its core-curriculum standards,” said Arnold. “So how
these two big changes align or don’t align are going to be big challenges
for school systems. Certainly at TCAPS we will be making sure that we are
meeting these core-curriculum standards and teaching what is required for
the MEAP testing, but there are no additional funds available to
accomplish this.”
Superintendent Hill is concerned with Lansing meddling in the process
without bringing the educators to the table and providing adequate funding
to all school systems.
“I think for all of us in education the frustrations coming out of Lansing
at times are many and here is an example. By September 1, 2011, all school
districts need to have a merit pay program in place for all teachers and
administrators based on student academic growth,” said Hill. “Now how can
we implement such a program and award merit pay when we just had a cut of
$470 per student? How do you create a merit pay program when every school
district in Northern Michigan has had to cut offerings and staff? It seems
like Lansing doesn’t think through of all the ramifications.”

Hill says parents should be alarmed about the proposed new accreditation
system if it is put in place.
“When you look at the entire accreditation of a whole school district
being based on the collective standardized test scores of individual
students, that is a flawed system.
“Here is why. First, you are placing 100% of the responsibility on the
schools and the teachers with this process,” said Hill.
“Education is a partnership that requires the students and parents to be
part of the process. So with this proposed new accreditation system you
could end up with schools and teachers doing everything on their end right
but having just enough students for a variety of reasons not doing what is
needed on their end. This could result in the school losing its
accreditation and the other students not being able to get into college as
a result.”
School administrators also argue that these new standards won’t give the
flexibility they need to prepare students for the future.
“At TCAPS we are trying to balance all this and not be so over-focused on
testing that we overlook the other aspects that are necessary to insure
that our students have a smooth transition into their next step in their
educational journey,” said Arnold. “We really believe to accomplish this
we have to provide other opportunities such as the arts, athletics and
other extra-curricular activities.”

Because of lack of funding TCAPS is now looking at innovative ways to fund
programs that possibly would be cut otherwise.
“We have already started reaching out to the community to seek the needed
funding to keep as many extra-curricular activities in place. We have a
major sponsorship initiative with very tasteful signage opportunities at
Thirlby Field and in our junior and senior high schools among other
opportunities,” said Arnold. “In return we receive sponsorship revenue
that will support these extra activities specifically our middle and
elementary school athletic programs this year.”
Hill chuckles when he hears how some schools are having to focus their
time raising money while other school districts are trying to decide
whether to add a second swimming pool or a new sports practice facility.
“One thing that is not being discussed in this debate is the inequity in
school funding when you have Northern Michigan school districts receiving
$6,800 per student and some downstate school district receiving as much as
$15,000 per student,” said Hill. “If that downstate school system has
5,000 students, that means they are getting $41 million more a year than
the Northern Michigan school district of the same size.”

But Lansing is more concerned with Michigan’s placement in the national
rating system, versus school funding parity.
“Certainly we are frustrated with the school funding process,” said
Arnold. “Despite our lack of funding what we found was that TCAPS had the
highest proficiency rating with the lowest per pupil funding among the
largest school districts in the state. In fact, TCAPS scored higher than
14 school districts who receive higher funding per pupil. In the business
community we would get rewarded financially for this, but that is not the
case in the educational world. Funding for schools has become such a
politicized formula that essentially a small group of lobbyists have the
influence over the committees in Lansing, and that is just how it works.”
As for how Michigan stacks up against other states, students currently
rank 37th at the secondary level. The rankings are based on ACT test
scores of high school juniors. Recent media reports also state that the
United States is falling behind several other countries in math and
science testing.
Hill questions these findings.
“I would question whether we have an equal playing field for a global
assessment of educational standards. I would also question Michigan’s
ranking versus other states when you hear these rankings -- for example at
the high school level where the ACT is used,” said Hill. “Michigan is one
of just five states that requires all juniors to take the ACT, so when we
are comparing us to other states where just the college-bound juniors are
taking the test, you are not comparing apples to apples.”

All of these changes coming out of Lansing and Washington D.C. have
resulted in a competitive environment that schools have not seen
“We now have marketing and advertising campaigns in place because every
bit of school funding from the state is based on a per pupil foundation
grant, so the more students you can enroll the more funding you will
get,” said Arnold. “So when you look at the low per pupil funding of
schools in Northern Michigan, getting every possible student is so
This competitive environment has created another challenge.
“It has made the collaboration process more difficult. School districts
need to find ways to work together and share resources and these mandates
and funding issues are making this an almost impossible proposition,” said
Hill. “At TBAISD one of our biggest objectives is finding ways to
collaborate and share resources. It is a real shame that school districts
have to spend time, energy and resources to market themselves, sell
sponsorships when those energies should be focused on tools to educate the
Regardless of what decisions come out of Lansing and Washington DC, Hill
believes school systems need to reevaluate.
“We are going through a renaissance right now in our educational system in
this country. Because we are going through this dramatic change within our
educational system during a time of diminished resources we have to be
more innovative now than ever before and use technology more within the
teaching and learning process,” said Hill.
“The bottom line though is we (schools) need to improve and anybody that
denies that professionally is in the wrong place. We have to be
deliberate, passionate and focused in our approach to having high
expectations for each and every student.”
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