But Skilling was right. Oxford used the fiscal turmoil to reinvent itself as a leader in digital learning, leveraging the Internet to deliver and enhance student instruction. Just when district leaders might have turned inward and focused on their misfortunes, Oxford looked outward and tapped the energy and innovation of the World Wide Web.
The results can be seen in more than the cutting-edge programs that Skilling eagerly displays as he escorts a visitor through the district’s facilities; Oxford’s unusual offerings have attracted new students. According to data from the Michigan Department of Education, the district’s enrollment has increased every year since 2007, and in the 2011-2012 school year, Oxford grew by 250 students — more than a 5 percent increase in a single year. Oxford is the only district in Oakland County projected by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments to be larger in 2015 than it was in 2005.
The new students mean Oxford is collecting more state revenue, and it has used the cash infusion to enhance its brick-and-mortar programs. Oxford has added new boys and girls athletic teams in middle school and high school — lacrosse, swimming, tennis and downhill skiing, among others. It nearly doubled the size of its fine arts program, hiring eight new visual and performing arts teachers and tripling the size of its choral program. Preschool through third-grade students can now take violin, cello or classical guitar classes, and more than 400 students in grades four through 12 have enrolled in a district orchestra program that started in 2008. Oxford also added an International Baccalaureate program and world language classes that are available to all students.
These programs certainly cost money, but with the per-pupil state aid spurred by increased enrollment, they did not break the bank. In fact, the district is more stable financially: Its fund balance leapt from 5.7 percent to 16.2 percent of the operating budget between 2006 and 2011.
True, Oxford had advantages. In terms of per-capita personal income, Oakland is Michigan’s wealthiest county, according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and the district’s enrollment was growing before the Great Recession, a time when many districts were stacking up empty chairs.
Yet Oakland County took a direct hit with the staggering blows to General Motors, Chrysler and so many of their suppliers. And Oxford is just a midsize district compared to the 27 others in Oakland County. Its per-pupil foundation allowance is just 3 percent above the state minimum and is fully 40 percent below those of the best-funded districts in the county. The state Department of Education reports that nearly a quarter of Oxford’s enrollment is low-income students who qualify for a federally subsidized free or reduced-price lunch.
Oxford had reasons to look at the impending recession and plan for an orderly retreat. It chose to go on the offensive. “This is the kind of counter-intuitive thinking that we’ve been going through, breaking the conventional wisdom,” Skilling says. “Instead of cutting programs, we’ve been adding and improving.”