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School data requirements are part of state's mandate mess

By Mark Bashore, WKAR News


Information Technology employees in many of Michigan's 549 school districts say they're swamped with demands for data from the state and federal governments. They also question much of its value. Last week, the state earmarked more than $25-million to help pay for data collection efforts. But the schools complain that it's money that already belongs to them that will have to be taken away from other academic areas. WKAR's Mark Bashore reports on the unending drama known as "unfunded mandates."

As I.T. director for Eaton Rapids public schools, Tony Nault struggles to keep up with state and federal requirements for hundreds of pages of data. He shows me a 460-page manual that details who needs what information, when.

"That's only six reports," he says. "There are at least another ten or twelve reports. We are spending so much time and so much money on reporting the same thing, instead of spending that time and that money on the kids in the classroom. And that has to change."

Waverly Schools Superintendant Deb Jones says the cost is huge.

"We're spending about 65-thousand dollars for these people to actually enter the data and to actually to gather it," she says.

With newer issues like teacher accountability, bullying and homelessness, administrators say data requirements are going nowhere but up as government and policy-makers monitor reforms. Some claim the statewide cost of compiling and getting data to Michigan's "Center for Educational Performance and Information"---called "CEPI"---to be as much as $100-million a year.

School officials emphasize they understand and accept the importance of a lot of data. A point stressed by state spokeswoman Liz Boyd.

"It's important to note that some of the data fields that are required by the federal government," she explains. "If we do not comply with those requirements, we could jeopardize $1.6 billion in federal funds."

A serious legal issue is also involved. Until last week, schools weren't getting any money earmarked to pay for data collection. It had to come from elsewhere in their budgets. That's an unfunded mandate and technically illegal in Michigan. Dennis Pollard is an attorney representing the schools.

"It is a mystery to me," he says. "They have ignored the fact that they can't impose a mandate until they fund it. They just acted like nothing has happened."

Pollard and others maintain that the federal requirements tied to funding are dwarfed by the growing body of unnecessary CEPI data. The state responds that in a policy landscape as complicated as education, seemingly trivial data are sometimes important. Thomas Howell is the Executive Director of CEPI. He points to birth order information, for example.

"A lot of times, you know, we get into phonetically naming our kids---Timmy, Tommy, Tammy," he says.

Howell says the data help ensure MEAP scores, for example, stay matched with the right child.

Still, officials say conversations have begun to reassess the need for some of the data. Dave Martell is the Executive Director for the Michigan School Business Officials. He's hopeful governor-Elect Rick Snyder---who he calls "a fellow CPA-type person"---will solve the problem. But Martell says it will take a lot to reform what he calls a "shell game."

"They say, 'OK, here's six or eighteen dollars per kid to pay for you doing this reporting, but we're gonna take it away from how much we give you per kid,' he says. "So they take it from one bucket and give it to us in another. We'll probably never see an end until the legislature fully complies with the constitution of the state."

Meanwhile, a bi-partisan commission spent 2008 and 2009 studying the unfunded mandate conundrum. A year ago, its recommendation triggered a package of bills designed to add teeth to the ban. Democratic Representative Mark Meadows is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a sponsor of the bills. He says the measures were a casualty of a busy election year, but he's confident of passage in 2011 due to strong support on both sides of the aisle.

"Most legislators anyway recognize there's been a tremendous impact on local units of government by a lot of the legislation that may look good on paper, but when you start to figure out 'Well how much is this going to cost?' that maybe it wasn't such a good idea to do it unless we could actually have the money available," he says. "You know, I think that's only fair."

He also says Governor-elect Rick Snyder's business background may help. A Snyder spokesman wouldn't comment specifically on the issue.

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