Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

More fundamental rethinking of the organization and provision of school districts is in order in hard pressed communities

I moved to Washington, DC in 1987.  Previously I had lived in the Detroit area for my entire life.  In Michigan, school districts are formed at the city-town-township level.

In Maryland and for much of Virginia, school districts are organized at the scale of the county.  So the school districts are much bigger, but at the same time they draw on the entire taxing capacity of the county, rather than the vagaries of individual communities, some of which are small, some of which are big, some of which are wealthy and some of which are poor.

So in Michigan, Pontiac schools have financial (and other) issues, and until recently, Bloomfield, Birmingham, and West Bloomfield school districts do very well.  But on a county by county basis, there tend to be great disparities.

While in Maryland, thngs aren't necessarily supra-better--there are still outcome disparities on racial and ethnic grounds--for the most part, students are on an even playing field at the county level.
Detroit, Hamtramack, Highland Park map
Not so in Michigan.  So yesterday's Wall Street Journal has a story about Highland Park, "Michigan City Outsources All of Its Schools," and how they are outsourcing their schools to a charter school company.  I've written about Highland Park's being an economic basket case before ("Urban decay and sprawl: one community's gain at the expense of another's").

The city, along with Hamtramack, is completely enveloped by Detroit.  It's just a couple square miles in size.  Historically the city had been financially successful, because Ford and Chrysler had major operations there, and the city assessed an income tax on people working in the city. So it didn't matter that the residential part of the city didn't carry its weight financially. But now, neither Ford nor Chrysler have significant operations there and the city is destitute, and the lack of economies of scale in various agencies of the government is just one more intractable problem that even outsourcing can't fix.

A couple years ago, the Mayor of Memphis executed an interesting stratagem not available to cities in Michigan.  He dissolved the city of Memphis school district, which is forcing its consolidation with the Shelby County School System ("Merger of Memphis and County School Districts Revives Challenges" from the New York Times).  It is supposed to take place next year.

Of course the battle isn't over, just this past week, as a number of cities in Shelby County passed referenda allowing the creation of school districts at the city level, allowing these communities to withdraw from the soon to be consolidated into one City-County School system ("School systems for 6 Memphis suburbs approved," AP story).  From the AP story:

Voters in the six municipalities want their own schools to avoid the merger between the larger, struggling, majority-black Memphis school system and the smaller, more successful, majority-white Shelby County district.

But the vote is being challenged in court by the Shelby County Commission, which is concerned that the breakaway could undermine the merger.

The municipalities, which have a total population of about 171,000, have been part of Shelby County Schools but wanted to break away before the consolidation, set for 2013. Voters in the six suburbs also approved a property tax increase to help pay for the schools.

Supporters of the individual school systems say they want complete control of their own schools and believe academic performance will suffer if included in a combined system with 150,000 students. Proponents also note that state statistics show that Memphis City Schools perform at a lower level than the county's schools.

But opponents have charged that the municipalities want to avoid the merger on racial grounds.

Just as various local governments, cities and counties and townships and various special purpose districts are beginning to consolidate services in an attempt to cut costs while minimizing drops in service quality, the issue of how schooling is provided can't be overlooked.  (In New Jersey, Gov. Christie is forcing the merger of special districts, including school. See, from NJ Spotlight, New Jersey Gets Serious About Sharing Core Services.")

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