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Michigan's shrinking schools: What's the impact?

Mike Zoerhoff

As school districts struggle with the unavoidable future of declining enrollment, the impact goes far beyond empty classrooms, best friends transferring to a new school and dreaded pink slips. How are schools — and our communities — planning for a future with fewer children? And could this be the inspiration for innovation our schools need to transform how we educate Michigan's children?
An inevitable decline

It’s a simple equation: declining birthrates = fewer children. Fewer kids = declining enrollment, both in K-12 schools and post-secondary education around the state of Michigan and nation.

The simplicity stops there though, as school districts and educational organizations struggle with the unavoidable future of declining enrollment that was predicted years ago. Declining enrollment that translates into empty classrooms, best friends transferring to a new school and dreaded pink slips.

The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments’ 2040 Forecast explains what this decline could look like for Southeast Michigan, along with the rest of the nation:

[We] face an aging baby boomer population, whose influence on demographic trends continues to affect various age groups. While the baby boomers themselves are driving the dramatic increases in senior age groups, the share of working-age population is declining in the coming decades. Since this group also includes the prime childbearing-age women, it is reasonable to expect a continued decrease in youth population in the next few decades.

In fact, SEMCOG projected in 2012 that in just 10 years, southeast Michigan will have 112,000 (or 13 percent) fewer school-age children (ages 5-17) in its seven intermediate school districts. This decline isn’t expected to slow down until 2020.
While SEMCOG focuses on projections in Southeast Michigan – the problem of declining enrollment is statewide, with very few districts unaffected.

Considering the now and the future

There are two ways we need to look at the issue of declining enrollment: how it affects our community now and how it will affect the future of Michigan.

The situation now is the kindergartner who is moved to a different elementary school because his or her first school is closed due to declining enrollment. The comfort of a familiar classroom, teachers and first school friends are dispersed among other schools in the district. The empty school building is now just a structure the student’s family passes on the way home from school.

Mike ZoerhoffMike Zoerhoff, superintendent of Kentwood Public Schools, understands firsthand how declining enrollment can have a devastating impact on a school district.

"When our district faced this issue several years ago, we looked to reduce costs through innovation rather than dismantling the many programs we had in place to support our students. While we were forced to temporarily close one elementary school, we ultimately reopened the building as an early childhood center."

Jeff Guilfoyle, photo by Dave TrumpeJeff Guilfoyle, vice president of Public Sector Consultants, a Lansing-based public policy firm, sees the impact on not just school districts, but the state’s businesses.

“Declining enrollment means fewer students graduating. This means a smaller workforce for the future. If businesses are going to be able to find the workers they need to grow, it is very important that we are more successful on the education front,” he says.

Unpredictability in predictability

While school districts can expect declines, they can’t control the consistency or rate that it comes. School finance formulas do not work particularly well with declining enrollment. Fewer students doesn’t necessarily mean fewer bus routes, fewer subject matters or fewer buildings.

“Closing school buildings can be very difficult politically,” says Guilfoyle. “If you asked me if I'd rather be a superintendent of a shrinking or growing district, there is no question that I'd rather be in charge of the growing district. Getting smaller is very challenging from a management standpoint. Districts struggle to reduce their fixed costs.”

Inspiration for innovation

While declining enrollment can easily be seen in a negative light, there is a silver lining.

Xuan Liu, photo by Doug CombeXuan Liu, manager of research at SEMCOG, has seen communities cope with declining enrollment by recycling spaces and resources.

“With school-age population declining and senior population increasing, we’ve seen school facilities converted or redeveloped into senior facilities. For example, former Starr Elementary School and the school administration building in Royal Oak have been redeveloped into senior housing.”

Zoerhoff provides another example of how school districts are responding to the enrollment decline by strengthening their schools and communities.

“As the number of students across the state decreases, there is a shift to greater competition amongst educational entities causing more pressure to provide unique programs that attract students and their families.”

This type of pressure has the potential to promote excellence and innovation across the state, and provide the (fewer) students that are in Michigan with best-in-class education.

After all, as Guilfoyle explains, “Our kids are a precious resource. We need them to be successful for the state to be successful.”

This piece was made possible through a partnership with Public Sector Consultants.
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