Most school boards only meet twice a month, but if the members of the seven-member Dearborn Public Schools Board of Education can’t be found at the district’s Audette Street headquarters on Monday nights, they surely can be found at .
That’s because the board–which steers policy for the 18,700-student district–performs the same service for HFCC as the last joint K-14 board in the state of Michigan. Once commonplace in the state, most community colleges long ago opted out of the shared school-college system in favor of their own, dedicated boards.
And now one board trustee wants to explore the split, too.
The board is a component of the K-14 district, which has been immensely beneficial to students: The Early College Program allows high school students to take HFCC courses free of charge, and is one of a handful of programs that allows students to graudate in five years with a high school diploma and up to two years of college credits.
But what would happen if an issue came up at the schools that could benefit secondary students, but could negatively affect the college? And if called on to vote on such an issue, how could the board decide the issue in a way that was best for the parties they represent?
“I’ve been asking whether we should look at this for a while now,” said Trustee James Schoolmaster. “This isn’t about our relationship with the college–I think dual enrollment for students and other programs should be expanded, not eliminated.
"It’s just that we used to have two separate funding sources, and that is changing.”
Nine hundred million from the school aid fund–the fund that is used to pay for public education in Michigan–recently was diverted to community colleges, which means the strong demarcation line between the colleges and public schools has blurred, said Schoolmaster.
And, board members must also consider the political implications that could occur in 2014, when it must place four millages–two for Dearborn Schools and two for HFCC–in an anti-tax environment and a difficult local economy.
Opinions Support Dual Board
Incompatible public offices are frequently investigated by the Michigan Attorney General’s Office, and are defined as an individual holding elected public office for two boards or commissions that are inherently incompatible, such as a county water commissioner who votes to raise rates, and then serves on a city council that must pay the increased fees.
Brad Banasik, the legal counsel for the Michigan Association of School Boards, said there is no legal conflict that would suggest the board should represent only the schools or the college.
“There isn’t any conflict because there’s no authority that tells me so,” he said. “An incompatible office situation is when you can’t serve on two boards, and there’s nothing in the attorney general’s opinions that indicate a local school board and a college board or university board are conflictive.
“The question is, are they going to be able to represent both interests equally?” Banasik said. “Are the decisions they are likely to make be at odds? There’s nothing (in law) that says they can’t hold both offices.”
Adriana Phelan, vice president of the Michigan Community College Association, agreed with Banasik.
“Community college boards are rooted in the school boards,” she said. “The Dearborn-HFCC is the last joint board, but from our perspective, the relationship is not one that has conflicts.”
Politics and Perception
Dave Mustonen, the spokesman for Dearborn Schools, said he cannot remember a time when the board was forced to make a decision that in favor of one entity that was at the expense of the other.
But public relations problems can arise out of seemingly innocent situations, and the four millage renewals due to be on the Nov. 2014 ballot could be viewed dimly by residents.
Gary Erwin, the spokesman for HFCC, said the question of whether the board should be separate is a community decision, and would have to be decided by voters in the district.
Schoolmaster said the board should at least be prepared to look at the prospect of conflicts coming up, and that if the schools and colleges were to have separate boards, it would not mean the relationship between the two would end.
“The relationship with the college has been successful for us,” he said.