News Story

For Michigan Newspapers, Disaster Always Stalks Public Schools

Sky-is-falling headlines have been common since the 1950s

The state of Michigan is driving schools into bankruptcy, and even more public school districts will soon be broke.

That statement may resemble some recent Michigan newspaper headlines, like those attached to a report that for 25 years Michigan schools have been dead last nationwide in state revenue growth. But in this instance, the headline appeared above an opinion piece in a November 2009 edition of the Lansing State Journal.

The author was Donald Sovey, then the associate superintendent for business at Charlotte Public Schools. His op-ed carried the headline, “State is driving schools to bankruptcy.”

Sovey predicted that 86 districts would be bankrupt by June 30, 2010. [Editor’s note: There were 43 districts in deficit in 2010; the Michigan Department of Education projects that when the final 2018 figures are in, just 10 districts will have spent more than they took in, the lowest number in deficit shown in online department records that date back to 1989.]

Sovey now runs a consulting firm for school districts and government agencies facing financial challenges. But his claim has been echoed for decades by various politicians, school administrators and parents.

Consider a story from the Detroit Free Press. The headline was simply, “Bankrupt Schools,” followed by this first paragraph:

“The alarm cry has gone up from many of the state’s school districts, particularly those of the smaller cities, towns and rural communities, that unless drastic steps are quickly taken to bail them out of serious financial difficulties, many schools face the prospect of early closing.”

The writer added: “This situation, unfortunately, is not just the old ‘wolf’ cry which often presages demands for larger appropriations.”

That article was from Dec. 7, 1952.

In the nearly 70 years since then, public schools and their allies have rarely stopped crying ‘wolf,’ which can be seen in these Michigan news and opinion articles:

The Herald-Palladium

May 23, 2007

Headline: “Wake Up Michigan — Save Our Schools”

Annie Brown, a parent, wrote an op-ed that called for legislators to “make courageous steps toward increasing taxes.” Brown said, “For now, we need a quick answer before schools start going bankrupt and closing their doors.”

Lansing State Journal

June 15, 2005

Headline: “GOP’s old dogs should learn to do new budget trick”

Michigan State University professor Fred Barton wrote an op-ed decrying an idea at the state Legislature to decrease spending. He wrote, “Schools going broke, instituting pay-to-play and laying off teachers? ‘Reduce spending?’ Roads look like they’ve been bombed? ‘Reduce spending?’”

Battle Creek Enquirer

Jan. 12, 1990

Headline: “State of state? It depends on your party”

“My schools are going broke and property taxes are outlandishly high. The priorities of the governor need to change,” said Rep. John Pridnia, R-Harrisville.

Port Huron Times Herald

Oct. 1, 1989

Headline: “Schools grasp at ‘imperfect’ reform plans”

“You’re just spending money and you’re not doing anything to help the poorer districts. If we can’t get some reform in funding schools, I’m going to predict we see some schools going bankrupt.” Those words came from the Croswell-Lexington superintendent, Gary Davis.

Detroit Free Press

Feb. 14, 1982

Headline: “The year the schools went broke – 1982?”

The article quoted Hugh Jarvis, president of Michigan Federation of Teachers, who said, “In bluntest terms, Michigan schools are going broke.” He continued, “I’m afraid that school closing may become just another everyday event in 1982.”

Detroit Free Press

May 23, 1976

Headline: “Disaster Stalks Macomb County Schools”

The Detroit Free Press writer warned, “If the new taxes are not approved by the voters, several of the county’s school districts could be bankrupt within another year, says Bill Finlan, assistant superintendent of the Macomb Intermediate School District.”

The article later states, “Meanwhile, the schools are going broke.”

The article added, “To avoid bankruptcy, [Richland School District Superintendent Fred] Hoover says he expects the Richmond school board to place a millage request before their voters this summer.”

Another story, titled, “‘60s Boom Now Strangles Schools,” warned that other metropolitan school districts in the state were facing similar dire financial situations.

Detroit Free Press

May 6, 1969

Headline: “$1 To Private Schools Would Be $1 Too Much”

This article from the Free Press editorial board came out against legislation that would have given $100,000 out of a school aid budget of $845 million to parochial schools.

“It raises the question of constitutional bans on such aid and, most of all at this time of school financial trouble, the impossibility of giving money to private school systems when our public schools are going broke in many communities.”