Back in 1993, Kalkaska Schools became the poster child for failed school funding models. After a long string of millage defeats and numerous program cuts, the district took a radical step that echoed across the state and the nation — it closed the doors nearly three months early.
The New York Times reported that education experts considered it to be the most extreme action taken by a troubled school district.
Kalkaska's decision echoed across the state and in Michigan helped lead directly to Proposal A, which fundamentally changed the way public schools were funded.
Now, another northern Michigan district has become proof that Michigan's system of funding public education is broken — again — and that continued cuts in financial aid must stop and the irrational way aid is doled out must change.
Suttons Bay, like dozens of other districts, suffers inordinately from even small changes in enrollment. The district gets only $6,846 per student, much less than other Leelanau County districts, and when enrollment declined over the years, capped by a large drop in the fall, the district was in danger of being taken over by the state.
While such an action has been justified in districts with poor leadership, that is hardly the case here. In fact, Suttons Bay should be looked at as a model for many of its recent actions, not a takeover target.
The district cut staff and outsourced transportation, janitorial and food services over the past two years. The pioneering effort to partner with the Bay Area Transportation Authority to provide bus service should be a statewide model.
Amazingly, district teachers and administrators pledged $55,000 of their own money to help stave off a state takeover. Then area residents matched the teachers' donations and contributed $55,000.
Last week, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, as part of its annual 2 percent allocation funding, gave the district more than $183,000.
That's as sure an endorsement of the district as one could hope to find. But relying on donations to make ends meet is, of course, an unsustainable funding model.
This has to change. There is no bigger investment for the state than in public education. Public schools come in for plenty of criticism, some of it deserved, but the reality is that the vast majority of Michigan children are educated in public schools and the state's very future depends on them getting a competitive education. Doing less is unacceptable.
Districts like Suttons Bay should be looked to for leadership, not threatened by a broken system.
The challenge is with the Legislature, but they're failing the test.