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Michigan's largest teacher's union said collective bargaining in school districts around the state has been hampered by the state's failure this summer to finalize an education budget.

As of Tuesday, there are 157 unsettled contracts among Michigan Education Association-affiliated locals across the state, MEA President Paula Herbart said. For the first time this decade, the Legislature failed to enact a K-12 education budget prior to schools’ new fiscal year starting on July 1, Herbart said in a statement.

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican-led Senate and House are still sparring about whether her proposed $2 billion road funding increase through a 45-cent-per-gallon fuel tax hike should be part of the budget.

"Without a state budget in place, many contracts aren’t being settled as students and employees return to school," Herbart said. "The teachers and education support professionals covered by those contracts deserve better than this financial uncertainty and hardship.”

Among the Metro Detroit school districts with unsettled contracts are Allen Park, Bloomfield Hills, Clawson, Dearborn Heights, Novi, New Haven, Pontiac, Walled Lake, Wyandotte and Lakeview in St. Clair Shores, according to the MEA.

A state budget must be complete by Oct. 1 to avoid a state government shutdown. 

From 2003 to 2010, Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a GOP-led Senate and the House often didn't pass budgets until September. Twice during Granholm's eight-year tenure state government briefly shut down.

But when Republicans controlled the Legislature and governor's office from 2011 through 2018, they reached budget deals by June each year.

Michigan’s Republican-led House and Senate already approved their own fiscal year 2020 budgets but have not yet sent a final plan to Whitmer, who campaigned on a pledge to “fix the damn roads” and has said she won’t sign a budget without a real plan to do so. 

Developing a budget during the first period of divided government in eight years is “not quite as easy” as it was when Republican had full rule in Lansing, said Sen. Wayne Schmidt of Traverse City, who chairs the K-12 and transportation subcommittees.

“We’ve had a little change in the front office, and we have to adapt to it, so that’s what we’re going to do,” he said Tuesday.

MEA officials said teachers face additional financial hurdles under a new state requirement that requires school employees to pay health insurance premium increases 100% out-of-pocket after a contract expires until a new agreement is reached. The law also freezes step increases after a contract has expired and limits retroactive pay when an agreement is eventually reached, union officials said.

Herbart said this is the first year since the enactment that law that the state has failed to pass a budget in time for negotiations to be completed before the start of school.

“The Legislature needs to return to Lansing and pass the governor’s budget right away, without playing shell games or enacting gimmicks like ‘pensions for potholes’ schemes,” said Herbart, whose union endorsed Whitmer during the 2018 campaign. “Our students and school employees deserve nothing less.”

Whitmer’s first executive budget proposed $507 million for K-12 schools under a new weighted distribution formula that would provide extra funding for kids with more costly educational needs, including at-risk, career tech and economically disadvantaged students.

The Senate budget proposes $410 million in new classroom spending, including $235 million for a per-pupil increase of between $120 and $180 per district. While it’s not as rich as the governor’s proposal, Schmidt noted the Senate budget includes what would be record levels of funding for both roads and schools. 

“So that’s a very good start right there,” Schmidt said.“Now though, we’ve got to make sure that the House can concur with something like that, and also make sure the governor signs it.” 

A separate plan approved by the House includes $226 million in increased funding for a per-pupil funding increase of between $80 and $180. Like the Senate version, it ditches the weighted formula Whitmer proposed.

Rep. Aaron Miller, a Sturgis Republican who chairs the House K-12 subcommittee, said he’s heard from several local superintendents concerned by uncertain state funding as they map out their budgets. But he suggested the House plan could serve as a baseline expectation. 

“At worst, the House would be a minimum, I would think,” he said.

Miller said he does not like to tout “record” education funding levels because those claims do not factor in inflation. But he said Republican work to complete early budgets the past eight years may have been taken for granted. 

“People got used to it, and it’s tougher than you think if there’s a disagreement,” Miller said. 

As for budget uncertainly affecting contract negotiations, Miller said he had not heard that but “can imagine” how it would be an issue for local districts. 

“But as long as our fiscal year is going to be October to September at the state level, and in July at the school level, you could always potentially have that problem year to year,” he said.

jchambers@detroitnews.com

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