Resisting Consolidation in Michigan

Consolidations wiped out 4,280 school districts in Michigan between 1950 and 1970, leaving the Wolverine State with only 638. In the 30 years since, however, fewer than 90 district consolidations have taken place, and the need for mergers — along with the accompanying pain of losing community high school sports teams — may be nearing extinction, says Jack Roberts, executive director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association since 1986.

“There have been no consolidations involving a Michigan High School Athletic Association high school since June of 2004,” Roberts said.

Michigan, however, has been hit hard by the recession, forcing some districts with declining populations to close high schools, which means some community varsity sports teams have simply disappeared. White Pine and Galien school districts in northern Michigan both closed their only high schools. Some districts are facing bankruptcy, which could force them to consolidate or dissolve, Roberts said.

Distance Learning
But short of financial insolvency, school districts are resisting consolidation. They have learned to share resources to save money, while retaining their individual interscholastic athletic teams and identity, he said.

Small schools in more remote corners also have tapped into virtual instruction, which Roberts sees as responsible as any factor for the dropoff in district mergers. “Any school of any size can offer any course imaginable online, thus removing one of the first and strongest arguments for consolidation.”

But taxpayer pressures do continue to press for cost savings. A citizens’ group led an effort to consolidate central Michigan’s Perry Public Schools and Morrice Area Schools in a January 2008 election, but voters soundly rejected the proposal as they had at least twice before. Among their many objections was a loss of their sports programs.

“The consolidation failed because each of the communities has separate identities that they want to retain,” Roberts said.

They weren’t concerned just about their sports identity, he said, but the calls he received from citizens and lawyers about what can and cannot happen to athletic teams during consolidation suggested concerns about sports helped fuel opposition. Several residents expressed concern about losing their sports programs in letters to the editor published in The Perry Independent.

One couple wrote that their 9th-grade son had earned a letter on the Morrice varsity soccer team. “He has already said that if he has to attend a different school, he will only wear his Morrice varsity jacket,” wrote Marie and Paul Palmer.

In another published letter, Andy Flynn, a Morrice graduate and sports historian, wrote, “The best athletes from Morrice will still have the opportunity to make the teams, but for the second-tier athletes, there will be fewer opportunities.”

Sustaining Life
While Morrice and Perry voters fought to preserve separate teams, some shrinking districts have surrendered their teams and joined forces to keep a viable sports program alive for their children. Since 1987, Michigan has allowed districts to combine part or all of their athletic programs to ensure students can continue to play competitive sports.

“This hasn’t seemed to spur consolidation,” Roberts said. “Maybe it served to say consolidation is not necessary.”

— Bill Graves