March 18 2013 12:00 AM

MSU professor looks at public school siting policy in Michigan

Friday, Dec. 16 — Many school districts throughout the state are suffering from declining enrollment and funding shortfalls, but the underlying problems may be the fault of state policy, rather than a district itself, an MSU professor says.

A new book called “School Siting and Healthy Communities” compiles papers from multiple states across the country, presenting different methods of managing schools, school costs and school districts, said one of the book’s editors, Mark Wyckoff, an MSU professor and senior associate of MSU’s Land Policy Institute.

“Michigan is kind of unusual in that school districts have exclusive jurisdiction to put the schools wherever they want,” Wyckoff said.

In Michigan, local taxpayers pay for the construction of a new school while the government pays operating costs on a per pupil basis, Wyckoff said. Districts can also choose where to build a facility.

But other states don’t follow that same model, Wyckoff said. In Ohio, for example, the state government pays for the construction of the schools so all taxpayers contribute, not just the district where the school is built. In Pennsylvania, a new school cannot be built on a new site unless you meet certain qualifications, which are specifically designed to be hard to achieve. Because of that, when a school becomes outdated, it is torn down and a new school is built on the same site so the community the school serves isn’t affected.

“The reason (for the law) is, we build neighborhoods around schools, and if you move the school it’s no longer serving the neighborhood,” Wyckoff said.

“What really struck me was how completely different school siting is in one state or another,” Wyckoff said of the compilation. “Its like day and night.”

Even how school districts are set up varies from state to state, he added. Michigan districts follow municipal lines while Florida school districts follow county lines. The result — Florida has about 95 school districts while Michigan has over 500.

Wyckoff’s contribution to the book looked at public school location changes throughout Michigan’s history and how that affected population. He mapped the number of schools in Michigan in 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2006 and compared them from one decade to the next.

“Suburban areas had drastic increase in enrollment and the number of schools,” he said. “Urban areas had drastic reduction in enrollment and the number of schools.”

This trend can especially be seen in the Lansing School District. According to the book, Lansing has the third highest drop in student enrollment in the state between 1990 and 2006, losing over 5,100 students. Only Flint (down 9,646 students) and Detroit (down 35,433 students) lost more. Lansing has also closed seven school buildings over the same period, tying the district with Battle Creek as the fourth worst in the state behind Flint (nine closed), Grand Rapids (10 closed) and Detroit (38 closed).

Wyckoff said the most interesting part of the project for him involved the number of school districts the state has. He provided a relatively common scenario where a city and a township’s school district are adjacent to each other. Families are leaving the city and moving to the township so the city needs to close a school due to falling enrollment. The township has the opposite problem and is looking at building a school.

“In my district I could be closing a school at the same time you were building a new building three miles away,” Wyckoff said. “If you multiply that 50 or 100 times, think of how many unnecessary schools we’ve built just because people moved.”

If Michigan’s districts were based on county lines like Florida, that wouldn’t happen, he said.

Wyckoff said the book was not intended to provide solutions state problems, but to show different examples of how states handle schools and create discussion among policy makers.

Wyckoff said he hoped the book would spark the interest of governments or foundations that would then decide to fund additional research to analyzing these issues more.

“We’ve made decisions without looking at the long-term,” he said. “(The book) suggests that maybe we need to start rethinking the way we go about making decisions.”