IRON MOUNTAIN - The results are in on the first-ever survey of Dickinson County residents to gauge opinions on the idea of a county-wide school consolidation.
Voters living in the school districts of Iron Mountain, Breitung Township, North Dickinson and Norway-Vulcan were randomly selected to receive a survey in the mail in June asking several questions on school consolidation as well as the benefits and difficulties of such a change.
The surveys indicated that Norway-Vulcan and North Dickinson County school districts opposed the idea, while Iron Mountain and Breitung Township school district residents were open to the consolidation idea.
Based on those results, the firm conducting the opinion survey also did a follow-up phone survey of voters in Breitung Township and Iron Mountain regarding the school consolidation of those two districts.
"This was an historic event that had never been done before on a county-wide basis," said Bill Verrette, a member of the Dickinson County Citizens Committee.
With the results in the hands of the four school district superintendents what happens next is up to the residents in each district, he added.
Both Norway-Vulcan and North Dickinson voters rejected the idea of consolidation by a wide margin in the county-wide survey.
In that survey, Breitung Township residents rejected the idea with 52 percent opposed to 48 percent in favor. Iron Mountain residents were in favor of the idea of consolidation by 73 percent to 27 percent against.
"Based on the close results in Breitung Township and the number in favor in Iron Mountain, the company conducting the survey recommended a follow-up telephone survey only in those two districts.
They asked about consolidating the two districts with Breitung Township survey participants favoring consolidation 51 percent to 44 percent opposed. And in Iron Mountain, residents favoring consolidation by 61 percent to 34 percent opposed.
The Dickinson County Citizens Committee's work is now complete, with the information being shared with the four school districts and the results distributed throughout the county.
"I would like to thank Wendy Warmuth, the superintendent of the Dickinson-Iron Intermediate School District, for the outstanding job she did in coordinating this effort," Verrette said.
Comments made in both surveys indicated that the respondents were not aware of how the debt of each school district would be handled in the event of a school consolidation.
For example, Breitung Township's debt is 3.96 mills and Iron Mountain's is 5.18 mills. The tax base would remain the same for three years if the schools were to consolidate. At the end of the third year, the new school board can elect to go out and ask the voters whether they want to combine the taxes.
If the voters say no, then the tax rate stays the same. The residents would not be taking on the debt of another district unless it was approved by the voters.
County-wide Consolidation Survey
In the county-wide survey, the company received 482 surveys with a 4.9 percent rate of accuracy.
Voters in all four districts were asked what they like most about the school district in which they reside. The top answers were great teachers and a quality of education followed by small school district, location, and modern facilities.
Responding to the biggest challenge facing their school district, the answers receiving the most responses were a lack of money or funds, declining enrollments, and lack of government funds.
Respondents were asked the most important reason they would support a consolidation proposal. The responses include administration cuts-combined administrative savings; save money-reduce costs; increased course offerings; financial stability-makes financial sense; improve educational quality; more efficient and lower taxes.
The most important reason for opposing a consolidation proposal included answers that said it would bail out Iron Mountain-assume Iron Mountain debts; too long-too far to be on a bus; district too large; busing transportation; increased class size; lose local identity; need more specific information; and only get other district's problems.
The last audited county-wide enrollment figures from 2013-14 included 1,573 students grade K-5, 853 students in grades 6-8, and 1,194 students in grades 9-12 for a total of 3,620 students.
Finishing the statement, "Consolidation may be a benefit because" was next on the survey with responses ranging from being a minor benefit, some benefit or great benefit.
The responses receiving the highest percentages for 'major benefits' included increased course offerings, facilities efficiencies, and more extra-curricular offerings.
A follow-up question asked whether there was another major area of benefit resulting from consolidating county districts that the respondent hadn't mention before.
Most said there were no other benefits they wanted to add. Some respondents also listed administration cuts-combined administrative savings, lower taxes, saves money, countywide unity-equity, and staff cuts-savings as other benefits.
Possible difficulties resulting from consolidation was next asked of the survey respondents with varying degrees of difficulty listed from minor to great.
The greatest difficulties listed were transportation, loss of individual identity and less extra-curricular participation in a favored area.
A follow up to this question asked if there was another major area of difficulty with this idea of school consolidation. Most responded that there weren't any other areas that hadn't already been mentioned.
Smaller percentages of respondents said it would be too long-too far on a bus, jobs lost, bailout Iron Mountain-assume IM debts, bullying, community backlash, increased class sizes, loss of individual student attention, new school-cost of new construction, scholarships lost and small districts getting left behind.
The survey also said that sometimes people will change their minds while taking surveys so they asked again whether the respondents right now would support or oppose consolidation.
The result was 50 percent would totally support it and 50 percent totally opposed it.
Breitung Township-Iron Mountain Consolidation Survey
The second survey - focusing on the issue of Breitung Township-Iron Mountain consolidation - had a total of 350 samples collected through a phone survey with a plus or minus error rate of 5.2 percent.
In this survey, there were 206 respondents from Breitung Township and 144 from Iron Mountain that were contracted from July 15-17.
This survey began by asking people in the two districts about the level of funding provided by the state to local K-12 public education districts. They were asked whether the level of funding was adequate or too little - with 55 percent saying it was too little.
The biggest challenge facing school districts - apart form the level of state funding - was also asked with the top answers being declining enrollment and large class sizes.
The next question asked whether the respondents would support or oppose a proposal consolidating the two districts. The survey found 54 percent would totally support it and 36 percent would totally oppose it with 10 percent undecided.
The most important reasons why they would support such a proposal included saving money-reduce costs; improve educational quality; saving Iron Mountain; increase course offerings; administrative cuts-combine administrations; declining enrollment, financial stability; and cut duplicate services.
The most important reasons why they would oppose this proposal included bailout Iron Mountain-debt; district-school too large; increased class sizes; lower educational quality; better off as separate districts; rivalry; tax increase; and lose local identity.
As with the first survey, the respondents were given the total combined enrollment figures for Iron Mountain and Breitung Township schools - a little more than 2,500 - based on latest student counts. This student total breaks down to 795 high school students, 1,131 students in grades K-5 or elementary and 600 students in grades 6-8 or middle school age.
Greatest benefits reported in this survey from consolidation included increased course offerings, facility efficiencies and more extra-curricular offerings. Most of the respondents said there weren't any other major areas of benefit from consolidation but a few responded by saying it would bring administrative cuts-savings; community unity; saves money; hire better-more teachers; lower taxes; and transportation savings.
In the area of difficulties with consolidating districts, the top answers were transportation; loss of individual identity; and less extra-curricular participation in a favored area.
Most of the people that were called - 61 percent - said there weren't any other major areas of difficulty resulting from consolidating districts.
Smaller percentages of those responding listed that difficulties would include jobs lost; increased class size; loss of sports competition-rivalry; taking on Iron Mountain debt; community backlash; how the new administration will be decided-power struggle; and school buildings closed.
With the fact that people sometimes change their minds during taking surveys, the respondents were asked again whether they would support or oppose a proposal to consolidate Iron Mountain and Breitung Township schools into a single district if they had to decide right now.
The result was 55 percent would totally support it and 39 percent would totally oppose it with 6 percent undecided/refused to answer.
To clarify how school debt is handled, those surveyed were read a statement about what Michigan law says about consolidation and that it doesn't mean a consolidation of debt.
With this information, they were again asked whether they would support or oppose the question of consolidation. The results were that 55 percent totally supported consolidation and 40 percent totally opposed it with 5 percent undecided/refused to answer.
To see the complete surveys for both the consolidation of the four county school district and the consolidation of just the Iron Mountain and Breitung Township districts, follow the link to The Daily News webpage.
For the mail-in county-wide survey, go to extras.ironmountaindailynews.com/sections/consolidation-mailin-7-31/index.html.
For the phone survey of Iron Mountain and Breitung Township residents, go to extras.ironmountaindailynews.com/sections/consolidation-phone-7-31/index.html.
Linda Lobeck's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.