The Grosse Pointe Public School System Board of Education recently seated a Blue Ribbon Committee to explore the following issues:

  1. If the Plante Moran CRESA facilities report is credible and verifiable information that can be used to develop a sustainable facilities plan
  2. What the GPPSS footprint needs are now, 5 years from now, and 10 years from now, for our educational programming
  3. What funding is needed to sustain the educational program our community expects for its students and from its neighborhood schools

The Grosse Pointe News covered the Committee’s second meeting, of which I am a member and participated in this week’s meeting. The bulk of the meeting involved Plante Moran’s overview of key data and analysis around facilities, estimations of repair costs and benchmark data of what other Southeastern Michigan districts have done to address capital needs with voted bonds.

So far the meetings have a feel very much like efforts of the last couple of years looking at bond issuing options for facilities and technology. The meeting this week, for example, involved a tour of North High School aimed to highlight areas clearly in need of repair. But the feel is different with the introduction of building use statistics along with his analysis. In other words, lurking in the shadows is the prospect of building closures – a topic not visited by the district in probably close to 30 years.

It’s logical to at least think about school closings now for two main reasons.

The first is building repairs themselves. Clearly district leadership is again strongly contemplating a bond to fund building improvements and it would be imprudent to consider building improvements without first knowing whether a school or other building closure is a possibility over the next few years.

The second driver is ongoing enrollment loss, a subject treated in detail in recent district publications and a topic of many of my blog posts here. There is NO denying that enrollment loss is a huge problem. It’s the biggest problem (along with state mandated retirement cost increases) that has faced the district perhaps in its history.

But we need to look at the enrollment issue in proper historical context, particularly if we are entertaining an argument that since enrollment has declined, the district should close and consolidate schools. Here is a graph of enrollment data published by the GPPSS in April, 2017.

 

Graphing data like this certainly sends a clear message that enrollment has dropped precipitously in this period from 2006 to 2017 – roughly 1,000 students or almost 12%. At $10,000 per student, this is a massive loss, basically a loss of $10,000,000 of revenue per year – a huge problem.

But let’s take a longer term view. Instead of stopping at 2006, let’s go back to 1992.

We cannot conclude anything too definitive from this view, but we can consider that in a longer, historical view the spike of this time period (driven largely by the “Echo-Boomers”) peaked in 2005, the date at which the first chart here starts. But as of now, enrollment is basically equal to the 1992 level.

The ramifications for the GPPSS (and many Michigan public schools systems) are significant. Since school funding became tied to enrollment in 1995, the GPPSS and so many others crafted financial, contracts, and budget systems in an age when revenue seemed to always rise. With the Echo Boom now abated, and having lived through the concomitant financial contraction, here we are.

Tying this all back to the Blue Ribbon Committee and its charge, this raises many questions – perhaps even providing some answers, or at least some theories. I was not tuned into district politics in 1992, but I don’t recall much controversy about potential school closings then. Other district historians can perhaps chime in, but I think legitimate discussions of school closings have not happened in the GPPSS since the mid-1980’s. The significance is that enrollment now is about equal to 1992. This would indicate that student demographics alone do not seem to be the main driver of building closures now.

It’s prudent, of course, to look at projections from now. So far what I have seen is limited in this regard – rendering it a very dicey proposition to base school closings on them. This must be an area of real focus for the Blue Ribbon Committee.

The real challenge will be to see the capital needs issues in relation to the mechanics of the General Fund and the district’s approach to it.

More to come.