STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.
Stockbridge is a village similar to many places around the state. The economy is tough, industry has gone, and the school system is one of few ways kids from the town can get a leg up. This is an inside look into this small town school district trying to make sure their kids have educational opportunity, even in the face of shrinking state aid and a tough economy. In addition to Sarah's reports, the Stockbridge project has moving and interesting radio stories, audio diaries, and photography from youth journalists at Stockbridge High School.

In the decision to close a school, it's largely about money


Over the last year, however, money in the district has gotten really tight. Superintendent Carl Heidrich shows me charts and bar graphs outlining these difficulties  in his office. The office is one of the few things that will actually remain in the middle school next year.  

There are three other schools in the district, a lower and upper elementary, and the high school. When the middle school shuts down each of these schools will be reconfigured. "If we didn't make those changes," Heidrich says, "we'd go into deficit, and we'd be one of those 50 plus districts filing a deficit elimination plan. Nobody wants to go down that road." 

Anatomy of a school closing decision 

Closing a school is a tough decision. But for Stockbridge it was a fairly obvious one. It was the only way the district could save a lot of money. Heidrich says, and the school board confirms that the district has lost about a a half million dollars in the last two years. That money is from their cash reserves, so the district has never had any trouble paying its bills but it is not a financially healthy position. 

The district did not get to this place because it is a big spender or because it is poorly managed. It is largely the result of population loss. As Heidrich puts it,  “It’s basic math and it’s simply per student state aid. If we have less students we get less money."

That’s per-pupil funding in a nutshell. The district gets a little over $7,000 a student from the state, and they've lost a net of about 350 students over the last 10 years. People have moved away for a lot of reasons but they are all rooted in the area economy. Heidrich has his eye on county birthrate projections; those numbers make it look like the smaller population is likely be the new reality.

Not a penalty for poor performance

Unlike schools in suburban or rural areas Stockbridge also has a hard time attracting school of choice students, one of very few ways for schools to increase the amount of money coming in. Again, that's more an issue of geography over school quality.  Because as the finances get tighter in Stockbridge and the student population shrinks the schools are getting better.

Compared to a decade ago the schools have more programs, better test scores and have attracted talented new staff. There are no financial incentives attached to their improvement, they have just doggedly pursued it. 

Heidrich is convinced that by getting out in front of any financial problems and closing the middle school the district will stay academically strong. Since the middle school has been the district weak spot in terms of student performance, he thinks it's likely to have academic benefits. He is on the lookout for any social and emotional consequences the new structure could bring. These could be issues around putting eighth graders into a high school setting, or basically telling a  sixth or seventh grader they have to go back to an elementary school they just left.

The move is also expected to serve it's real purpose and take a little bit of financial pressure off. The district needs to move about $500,000 off the books, and Heidrich says the closure of the middle school should do that.

The building itself is old, half of it dates from 1929, so there are some utility savings from shutting it down. But those saving are expected to be about $2,500 a month. It would take around three months of those savings to make up for one student moving out of the district. In education, real savings come by getting rid of people. When the middle school closes Hiedrich says the district will need fewer bus drivers, administrators, teachers, cafeteria workers, and janitors. But, the district is hoping to avoid significant layoffs and won't make any final decisions on those until the spring. 

After I leave the middle school I stop in to the downtown village coffee shop where people are chatting and working. These are some of the taxpayers the school board is thinking about asking for more money. The board might float a bond in the spring to re-do the existing buildings to accommodate the middle school grades and add technology. As with almost all school bond measures in the state, the district would not be allowed to use the money for operations or staff costs.

Chris Young is working on his computer at a table for two in the coffee shop, right under a television playing headline news. He's a taxpayer and has a young daughter in the district. He says he's angry the state doesn’t support schools more. He says he’s willing to do his part and  if the district does come asking for money, he’ll vote yes. 

"You have to take care of your house, so to speak," he says. "Or it will fall down around you."

"This is a sleeper community. Nobody's coming to Stockbridge. So, you have to have people that are committed to putting their kids first. I see a lot of that go on."

That sentiment echoes something I heard back at the middle school from Heidrich. "We have to take care of our own," he said. It's an attitude that has kept opportunity for a high quality education alive in a community where there is certainly no financial incentive to do so.

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