Nina Ignaczak

Jeff Guilfoyle joined Public Sector Consultants in early April as a vice president after an already impressive career in the public policy arena, most recently as president of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan (CRC), a nonprofit public policy research firm. Before his five years at CRC, Guilfoyle worked for a decade in the Michigan Department of Treasury’s Office of Revenue and Tax Analysis.

Guilfoyle’s expertise is in public-sector economics and all aspects of the state budget. He’s also been intimately involved in research on reforms to Michigan’s early childhood efforts. He straddles Michigan’s blue-green divide, having earned a BA in economics from the University of Michigan, and an MA and PhD in economics from Michigan State University.

Bright Ideas talked with Guilfoyle recently to get his sense of key trends across the state.

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Jeff Guilfoyle, Public Sector Consultants’ new VP for Education

Most important question first: you have degrees from both Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. So is it “Go Blue” or “Go Green”?

It is 90 percent blue and 10 percent green. I have a split allegiance, but I definitely bleed maize and blue. I tend to be more heavily Michigan for football, but in basketball my allegiance is more evenly split. I did not grow up in Michigan (Guilfoyle’s childhood home was on New York’s Staten Island), so I didn’t grow up with the rivalry. So it’s easier for me to root for both teams than it is for many people.

What excites you the most about joining the PSC team?

I’ve worked with the people at PSC when I was at the Citizens Research Council and when I was at the state, and I knew they were a great group. They are really smart people who are fellow policy geeks, so that’s a great work environment. When you think about people who work in public policy, PSC is really the premier group.

What is it about the private sector that is exciting for you?

When you’re in the private sector, it’s very clear that you are adding value. The connection is much clearer. You add value when you’re in the public sector and in the nonprofit world, but in the private sector, that value proposition is very clear. There are people who are directly funding the work that you do because they see the value in it.

And the fact that you can go out and find a client who is willing to pay for you to identify a policy question that you believe is important to the public, and is also interesting intellectually, is a clear validation that you are adding value. It gives you the opportunity to move into areas that you think are interesting, that you want to work on, and then marry that up with people who are hoping for that answer as well.

Can you share a little about your personal background and interests?

I play chess competitively. With technological advances, it’s a lot easier to play than it used to be. Now, with the Internet, you can log in at any time of day and find somebody to play with somewhere in the world. It’s much easier to pursue than it used to be, and it helps keep me sane.

I like to run also. It’s a good way to think. I can go out on the River Trail in downtown Lansing at lunch and run, and kind of process what I’ve been thinking about while on the run. I find it very helpful.

As I understand it, you grew up in New York. How did you get from there to here?

I lived on Staten Island and attended high school in Manhattan. I had put in my tuition deposit for SUNY Binghamton, a good school that no one around here has heard of.  Then I got a financial aid offer from the University of Michigan and decided, at the 11th hour, to go there because it seemed more of an adventure. I had never visited the campus; I didn’t know anyone in Michigan; I had no family there. I was just 17 years old, so my mom had to sign the dorm paperwork. Call it a leap of faith or an incredibly dumb thing to do, but it seems to have worked out.

Michigan has been through so much economically in recent years. What is one point you would highlight to citizens and policymakers alike about our economy?

When I first started working for the state in the late 1990s in revenue and economic forecasting, we could not raise the (state) revenue estimates fast enough, but then it started to change.

I very much became “Dr. Doom.” At Treasury at the time, we were debating whether it would be a U-shaped recovery or a V-shaped recovery; we never imagined that we wouldn’t recover in a typical fashion.

We experienced a fundamental change to the dynamics of the state’s economy. I’m not sure everyone realizes how bad the economy was in 2008-09.

I left the state for CRC in 2009 and almost at the exact same time the state economy began to recover. As a trained economist, I know, however, that correlation doesn’t equal causation.

What are some of the main challenges surrounding education and school finance faced by Michigan?

We have not seen significant revenue growth in school financing, and that has been constraining school budgets, combined with the increased retirement costs that have been eating up resources put into schools.

And then about two-thirds of the state’s districts are losing enrollment, so, with the stagnation of the per-pupil amount combined with declining enrollment, that’s made for some fairly significant budget challenges. I think Proposal A did many good things in the sense that it moved us to a more equal playing field. But one of the challenges has been that, as school budgets have tightened, you now have a situation where there are communities where they are probably spending less money than the local voters would choose to spend.  So whether or not that’s good policy is subject to debate.

We are also starting to see an expanded set of options with high school students being able to take a portion of classes virtually or at a local community college. I don’t think we’ve quite figured out how to make our school finance formulas work with that model yet. How do we manage that and allow for expanded choice without, at the same time, pushing the traditional school districts off the cliff?

What about school district consolidation? The Michigan Department of Education is trying to promote it. Superintendent Flanagan was quoted in MLive, saying that many districts are “headed off the cliff” and need to take consolidation more seriously. What are some of the issues faced by districts considering consolidation?

I think as a state we are a little schizophrenic on the question. In the sense that, on the one hand, there is a thought that we have too many school districts, and as a result we are not saving money that we should be saving on administrative costs. And that’s clearly a viewpoint that’s been espoused by the department.

But, at the same time, if you look at the number of school districts over the last 10 years, the number has exploded. So, we are both saying that we have too many school districts and need to consolidate, while expanding the number of school districts at the same time. The expansion is clearly related to charter schools.

We need to think about how do you get both—how do you get the benefits of charter schools and competition, while, at the same time, taking advantage of economies of scale?

What other policy areas are you hoping to work on at PSC?

I have a lot of interest in economic development. I’ve spent a fair amount time thinking about Detroit in particular. The state has many older core cities that are really struggling financially with providing basic public services. So what are the kinds of things we can do at the state level that can make these cities better?

There is a great deal of evidence that cities lead to productivity increases for the people who live and work there. We need those thriving cities and places of density where really smart and bright people get together and come up with great ideas. Does that have to happen organically, or are there state policies that can make that soil more fertile to really grow Michigan?

Since PSC already has a Jeff (Jeff Williams, CEO), PSC staffers have been discussing a nickname for you to use in the office. Do you have any suggestions for them?

It sounds like a bad sitcom plot to come up with your own nickname— kind of like a cross between the “Big Bang Theory” and “Seinfeld”—to plant a suggestion of a nickname in other people’s minds. I think I’ll let them come up with it. But with one caveat: If anyone from PSC reads or hears this, I beg you, please be kind!

Why do you do this kind of work?

Public policy is not some abstract topic—it has a direct impact on the quality of people’s lives. Take a city like Detroit, where there are a lot of people struggling, the outcomes are not good, we have a very high unemployment rate, and very poor outcomes from the public schools.  Detroit has 7 percent of Michigan’s K-12 population. That’s a significant part of the state’s future workforce. We need to be successful, not only because it’s the right thing to do for those kids, but because it will make the state a better place. We can’t write off 7 percent of the workforce.

So anything you can do on a policy level to help solve those questions, I think, directly increases the quality of life of the people that those policies touch and indirectly improves the quality of life of everybody else, my family and myself included.

I have two kids, one is a freshman in college, one is a freshman in high school, and I would very much like them to raise my grandkids in Michigan. And so we need to figure out what we need to do so that we are the place to be for our young people to stay here. I view working on public policy as maybe doing one tiny piece towards making that happen.