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Should An Anonymous Donor Be Able To Save A Public School?

LA Johnson

The Traverse City Area Public Schools in northern Michigan have a saying: "Great Community, Great Schools." The Washington Post agrees, ranking Traverse City high schools some of the most challenging in the country.

But the district of about 9,500 is losing enough students — 12 percent in the last 10 years — that last fall superintendent Paul Soma recommended closing three elementary schools.

Then came a surprise. At a school board meeting in March, when members had just voted to close two of the schools, Soma made an announcement about the third. "We are in the receipt of new information regarding a donor offering over $800,000 to keep Old Mission open."

With just 168 students, Old Mission Peninsula School is costing the district too much money to keep the lights on, even though the school's in an affluent area surrounded by some of the most expensive homes in northern Michigan.

The donor is anonymous, so who knows where the proposed money is coming from (the benefactor does have a spokesperson keeping in touch with the media), but this large sum has put Traverse City district officials in an uncomfortable position.

I think it actually enhances the suggestion that there are the haves and the have-nots.

Leaders here have long demanded that Michigan's support for public school kids not depend on where they live. Those same leaders say this is an offer they have to consider.

While they decide what to do with Old Mission, the other two schools will close. That's for sure.

Over the past twenty years, districts around the country have seen the amount of private money in public schools increase 4 times, says Ashlyn Nelson, an associate professor at Indiana University. She says one way school districts and parents have reacted to inadequate state funding is to raise private money so they can get their kids what they want.

"That usually happens in very high income, high wealth districts to begin with. So it's concentrating advantage in districts that already have students with the best advantages at home and at schools to begin with," she says.

It's a long-standing question in education. Should schools with access to more resources be able to spend more money? Or, should every student, regardless of what town or district they live in, have equal access to funding?

The whole thing has Meghan Flaska upset. She has three kids in Traverse public schools and says when she first heard about the donation she thought, "'You've got to be kidding me.' The idea that one particular school could benefit in a public school system doesn't make logical sense."

She says it's a generous offer but doesn't send a good message.

And I think that if the tables were turned, the other school would be supportive...

"I don't think that fosters a sense of community. I think it actually enhances the suggestion that there are the haves and the have-nots." She doesn't understand how the district could be upset about state funding and fine with this donation.

But Traverse City's superintendent Paul Soma says accepting the large private donation can't be equated to state funding.

"For us to somehow discuss that we're not going to entertain that discussion, I think would be kind of derelict in our duties relative to resources," he says, stressing that if the donation came with restrictions that would give the Old Mission students an educational advantage, for example, reducing class sizes, school officials would not accept the money.

Exactly how the more than $800,000 would help Old Mission Peninsula School is still unclear. Soma says they're not disclosing what specific restrictions are attached to the offer.

Some parents, even at the schools that will close, don't seem to mind, "I think it is fair because they're trying to keep a school open in their community. And I can appreciate that," says Earl Forton as he waits for his daughter to finish class at Interlochen Community School across town.

"And I think that if the tables were turned, the other school would be supportive that at least one of the schools has a chance to stay open."

But even if Old Mission does stay open, the question still stands: Should private money have a place in public education? And if it does, who decides which schools and children get the benefits?

Copyright 2016 Interlochen Public Radio

Morgan Springer