Tuesday, March 9, 2010

But Was It Worth It?

All over the state, school districts are announcing their intention to close schools. In Washtenaw County, Chelsea and Saline have said they are in the "definite" camp, and Ypsilanti and Willow Run are both highly likely to close schools. I doubt that is the end.

But this is not the first time that schools have closed, and--on the theory that those who don't know their history will repeat it (not always for the better)--it seems well past time to look at whether past school closings paid the dividends that past school boards wanted. In other words: was it worth it?

I moved to Ann Arbor in 1985, and at the time, the community was abuzz with the possibility of closing schools. Ultimately, six schools were closed, and there was quite a lot of reorganization as well. I didn't have kids then, and I was new to town, so I paid some--but not tons--of attention. In any case, I have spent some time, on and off, over the past several weeks looking for information about these closings, and now I think I have enough information to put up some posts over the next couple of weeks.

Three thoughts to start us out:
1. The 1985 closings were part of a long (very long) deliberative process that gathered steam over time, and covered the tenure of more than one AAPS superintendent. The timelines today, by comparison, seem like when you put the video on fast forward and get the "Mickey Mouse" voices speeding by. In other words: deliberative process? What is that?
2. Whether you think those school closings were successful depends in large part on your assessment of the defined objectives. In the case of the 1985 school closings, the primary issues were desegregating the schools and reducing the underutilization of some schools (particularly at the elementary and middle school levels). There was more, but those were the BIG ideas.
3. The law of unintended consequences suggests to me that we should also be looking at how these changes caused other, unintended, changes. Were those unintended consequences desirable, or undesirable?


  1. I am curious about the unintended consequences. What do you observe there? It is a good questions to address before, not after.

  2. In Ypsi, one elementary was closed in the '90s (Fletcher), and there are still hard feelings about it. Those feelings are not because a school was closed, but because this was not the targeted school. It was a last-minute switch that caught the public off guard.

    When the two elementaries (Ardis and George) were closed in '05, everyone knew for the entire year that buildings had to close. An enrollment decline had become an enrollment plunge, and the buildings were operating well under capacity. Of 6 elementaries, 2 were "safe" (well-attended and stronger academically) and 4 were being debated for closure. The programs that had made 2 of these schools special had already been abandoned, and many of their strongest supporters had moved on. Whether that played a role or not, those were the 2 that were chosen.

    Before the decision was made, there were many opportunities for public input, and I believe the school board considered a lot of that input in their deliberations. At least, I think most of the public felt that way. By the time of the announcement, administration already had a plan in place on how to implement the changes and how to address the needs of the children. I didn't witness a lot of anger and anguish, perhaps because people were better prepared.

    This time is a completely different story. Not only are things going too quickly, but the proposals were prepared without public input. The public presentations of the proposals asked for feedback and suggestions, but there is no evidence that any of it has been considered. There is a very strong feeling here that it's a "done deal," and the board and administration have done little to disprove this feeling. There has been nothing concrete presented that shows a transition plan.

    There are so many things wrong with this process that I expect a giant enrollment drop come fall, as parents move on to someplace where they feel they may be heard. (That would be an example of an unintended consequence.)

    Now, where that magical school district is, I am hard-pressed to say! Are there any public school districts in the area that ARE listening?

    - YpsiAnon

  3. Anon,

    I will get to the unintended consequences--hopefully within the week.

    YpsiAnon--I think that's a question for people in other school districts--who is satisfied with their school district's approach to these issues?

    In fairness to all the districts, theinstability of the current state budget, and the lack of ability for local school districts to take charge of their own income stream (they cannot levy funds directly) make it difficult to have the longer timelines that they used in 1985 and--as you point out--in Ypsilanti in 2005.

  4. Fascinating beginning - left me waiting for future posts. I moved here (no kids) just as all that was happening and I'll be interested to see your analysis.