ISDs Add Value to Education, Increase Cooperation and Control Costs

The following is an op-ed piece published by MAISA. Please feel free to adapt this for your needs. A longer version is available for download in the file attachments on this page.

While the role Intermediate School Districts (ISDs) play in helping children learn may not be widely known, the benefit to Michigan’s 1.5 million PK–12 students deserves a closer look.
A 2012 Public Sector Consultants (PSC) Report, commissioned for the 50th Anniversary of ISDs by the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators, notes that:
“Although ISDs – as we know them – were officially created by statute in 1962, they were certainly not the first intermediate or regional education service entities in Michigan. They were preceded by a number of configurations that date back all the way to 1855 – giving regional education a rich, 157-year history in Michigan. …Historically, key functions of the intermediate school district structure in Michigan have been to help serve the large number of school districts in our state.”

And now, more than ever before, Michigan’s ISDs are ensuring high-quality, equitable education. They continue to:

  • Save money and resources for PK–12 districts by providing consolidated support services
  • Train teachers in the latest research-based methods
  • Pilot innovative programs that districts couldn’t afford on their own
  • Coordinate special education and vocational services to improve quality and student performance

ISDs — which sometimes go by the name Regional Educational Service Agency (RESA) or Educational Service Agency (ESA) — do all of this by working with local school districts and the Michigan Department of Education (MDE). They support student achievement and leverage limited resources in seven areas, many of which are mandated by federal and/or state law:

  1. Teaching and Learning: ISDs offer thousands of training sessions each year to educators, keeping them informed of the latest research and teaching methods.
  2. Specialized Student Services: Local school districts depend on ISDs to meet ever-growing needs in special education, career and technical education and preparation, talent development, online and digital courses, Math and Science centers, extended day and alternative education programs, and court-involved youth and homeless education programs.
  3. Early Childhood/Great Start: ISDs are taking the lead in early childhood education to better ensure every child is safe, healthy and prepared to succeed in school and in life.
  4. Administrative Services: ISDs help districts share services in such areas as instruction, technology, transportation, business services, teacher training, and purchasing.
  5. Developing Partnerships: ISDs are often key partners in local economic development through their community ties with human service agencies, businesses, industry, colleges and universities.
  6. Technology Services: ISDs often manage the fiber network, purchase bandwidth, subsidize the cost of student assessment and management tools, obtain lower costs for computer software, provide Internet protection filters, purchase digital collections, promote online and digital learning options, and provide technical support.
  7. Customized Services: Each ISD works with its local school districts to develop products and programs to maximize benefits for that community.

ISDs are funded with federal, state, and local tax dollars and grants.  They have been doing more with fewer state resources and providing outstanding value by being fiscally responsible. While ISDs are being asked to provide increased services, help local schools consolidate their operations (which often requires hiring staff), give support to the lowest performing schools, and meet increased state and federal reporting requirements, they have managed to hold staff growth to less than 2% annually over the past 10 years.

ISDs are strategic in dedicating their resources to support students with special needs in both special and general education classrooms and to provide early intervention for students who may be at risk of learning failure.  In the past five years, one West Michigan ISD helped drive a 16% decrease in the need for special education services in its area-Increased early childhood services, response to intervention teacher training and more referrals of young children who might need support, all played a role. Just last year, this resulted in the ISD saving approximately $13 million based on a 2000-student drop in those needing extra services in school. 

In addition to special education services, ISDs provide career and technical education, transportation, financial services and professional development.While ISDs are only one organization that could provide such services, these cooperative arrangements with local districts and communities continue to grow. In addition, ISDs are required by state statute (School Code 380.627) to respond to requests from charter schools and local districts with a proposal to provide them with these kinds of requested services.

ISDs have effective structures in place for consortium services, such as cooperative purchasing.  In 2010-11, a Southwest Michigan RESA saved local school districts $1,953,559 in software and supply costs through its regional cooperative purchasing bid program. Those districts also saved an additional $341,117 on technology licenses through the program.

There may be further opportunities for ISDs to work with municipalities.  According to an August 2012 statewide survey commissioned by Business Leaders for Michigan (BLM), Michigan voters support the idea of consolidating government services and administrative functions as a means of increasing the efficient delivery of public services.  These same voters, however, oppose consolidating governmental entities, including school districts in their entirety, increasing the role played by Michigan counties and ISDs.

While technology has made it easier to pool resources, often it is the ISD that makes it possible for schools to collaborate electronically by providing, maintaining and supporting the fiber networks that deliver technology.  A mid-Michigan ISD provides 16 districts customized technical support and maintenance of local online infrastructure. Estimates indicate that the arrangement saves each district up to $200,000 a year compared to the cost of paying for this support individually. 

Most states—45 of 50—operate with some type of intermediate structure.  According to the Association of Educational Service Agencies (AESA), it serves educational service agencies in 45 states; counting some 553 agencies nationwide among its members.

The world has changed significantly in the 50 years since Michigan’s ISDs were officially introduced. Today, ISDs are being reinvented in light of MDE’s downsizing, increased ISD responsibilities, the downsizing of local school districts and their request for ISDs to provide more services. 

As PSC concluded in its ISD 50th Anniversary Report, “Fifty years after their statutory creation we continue to see value in an intermediate service entity for Michigan schools. …There are simply too many school districts, too complex a web of requirements and expectations, and too many competing demands on local districts to overlook the importance of intermediaries in the system.”
To learn more about ISDs visit