Remote school districts fear Whitmer veto cuts will close doors

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

DeTour — It takes one hour by school bus and another 30 minutes by ferry across the St. Mary's River to get high school senior Allyssa Miller across Drummond Island and to class in the Upper Peninsula town of DeTour.

“We get a good education here,” said Miller, one of 12 seniors in her class. “I spend about two hours a day on the bus, but we know nothing else. It’s a good way of life.”

Miller's ride could be even longer if state lawmakers and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer don't soon agree on a supplemental bill to restore about $1 million in lost state funding to five rural and remote school districts in Michigan.

Some here say that's an amount that could be a rounding error in the state's $59.9 billion budget, but to the five districts located in the Upper Peninsula or on islands, Whitmer's decision to line-item veto that funding could have extreme consequences for their students and schools.

Superintendents at Whitefish Township Community Schools, Beaver Island Community School, Burt Township Schools, Mackinac Island School District and DeTour Area Schools say they are facing decisions this month to close schools, take out loans to pay teachers and send students on bus rides up to four hours to the closest adjoining district if the money is not restored by the end of 2019.

Operating a school district on an island or in the Upper Peninsula comes with more challenges, additional costs and limited options, they say. 

Students have to be flown 35 miles from Beaver Island to the mainland to participate in athletics. Ferries carry children across the St. Mary's River from Drummond Island to school in DeTour, a tiny village in the most eastern part of the U.P. Food, school supplies and cleaning materials also have to be shipped across the water.

The Burt Township school district — which serves 31 students, is on the shores of Lake Superior and shares a border with Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore — stands to lose $221,000, or 23% of its revenue, if the funds are not restored.

"Without these funds, the district will either close its doors or reconfigure the district to serve only K-6," Burt superintendent Greg Nyen said. "The latter option will place our seven to 12 students on a bus for four hours a day."

The next closest districts are 50-65 miles away, or a two-hour bus ride, to Newberry and Munising.

Tom McKee, superintendent of Whitefish Township Community Schools in the U.P. along Lake Superior, said the district will lose $216,000, or 16% of its operating budget, if the money is not restored, and that means lost opportunities for his 53 students.

"At Whitefish, my students will have to ride the bus for roughly two hours one way to get to the next school district," McKee said. "That is two hours on a good, clear day. In Paradise, we do not have too many of those good, clear days between November and May."

McKee said if the funding is not restored by Dec. 31 the district will have to reduce its staff and school to a K-8 building or a 6-12 building and let go three of eight staff members.

McKee said he would have to split his student population, 63.8% of whom are economically disadvantaged, in half, sending some to Brimley, which is 60 miles away and others to Newberry.

"This would not be ideal, as we would be placing some of our students on the bus for an extremely long period of time," McKee said.

Peter Spadafore, associate executive director for advocacy and communications at the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators, said his organization has been using social media to campaign for the funds to be restored and talking to lawmakers, urging education committee chairs to take up two legislative bills to restore the funds immediately.

"These districts are making decisions on whether they keep high school open next year (2020)," Spadafore said. "This money goes toward their operating budgets, and they can't consolidate due to transportation challenges. They are so isolated on an island, and the residents there are owed an education.

"Without the funds, there is a risk they won’t be able to function. The stakes are that high."

Leia Mullins, 5, shows DeTour Area Schools Superintendent/Principal Robert Vaught her missing front teeth last week as Lillian LaKies, 5, watches in Amy Moser’s kindergarten class on Drummond Island.

Millions cut from fund

Whitmer cut a total of $7 million from a special fund for isolated districts. About $6 million from the fund is shared among about 170 small and rural districts in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. 

The remaining money, about $957,300, is just for the five districts that meet certain criteria: each has less than 250 students, is either in the Upper Peninsula at least 30 miles from another public school building, or is on an island not accessible by bridge.

Wilfred Cwikiel is superintendent and principal of Beaver Island Community School, which is 35 miles from the mainland and in the middle of Lake Michigan. He said the loss of $1 million might not sound like much, but it means a lot to the district where 47% of students are economically disadvantaged.

"That is literally ... it’s a rounding error in the state budget," Cwikiel said. "It means so little for the overall budget, but it's critical to these five schools."

His district made the decision last year to switch its single K-12 school building to an LED lighting system to save money on energy costs, believing it would have the money coming from Lansing for the upgrades.

The district, which uses money from the isolated districts fund to pay for operations, is losing $155,000. Cwikiel said the last-minute cut, which is 8% of the budget, has created a cash flow crisis for the district.

"We spent the money this summer relighting the building. We are looking to have to take out a loan to pay our teachers for November and December," Cwikiel said. "We are really hoping the governor and Legislature come together and restore this money as soon as possible."

Given the logistics of living on an island, Cwikiel said sending students to another district for their education would mean flying all 53 students to the mainland and back every day. A one-way flight costs $100. 

No supplemental funds yet

The Republican-controlled Legislature approved a $59.9 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Whitmer, the Democratic governor, said the budget didn't include enough funding for schools, communities and roads and sought to get Republicans to the negotiating table by vetoing 147 line items amounting to $947 million.

Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said the governor values education and is committed to ensuring schools have the resources they need to succeed.

When Whitmer presented her executive budget recommendation in March, Brown said it included funding for the small, isolated district line-item, as well as the largest investment in K-12 education in a generation.

The Republican budget bills that Whitmer received cut $136 million from the governor's proposed school aid fund budget, Brown said, and failed to include $97 million for at-risk pupil support, $60 million for special education and $80 million for the Great Start Readiness Program.

The governor, Brown said, remains committed to "negotiating with Republicans on a supplemental to achieve meaningful, long-term funding that will actually support our children and their schools."

Last week, the Republican-controlled Michigan Senate adjourned without taking action on supplemental spending bills that would have resolved Whitmer's nearly $1 billion in budget vetoes, including funds for the isolated districts.

The House scheduled a session day for this Wednesday, potentially allowing for a compromise to be reached this week. The Senate already has session days scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday.

"We get a good education here," said Allyssa Miller, one of 12 seniors in her class at DeTour High School. "I spend about two hours a day on the bus, but we know nothing else. It’s a good way of life."

Meanwhile, two state lawmakers have proposed bills to restore the funding to the districts. 

Rep. Sara Cambensy, D-Marquette, has introduced a bill in the House. Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, whose district includes four of the five school districts, has sponsored an identical bill in the Senate to restore the funding. Both remain in their respective committees.

Schmidt said he is hoping a supplemental funding bill will address the lost school funding and other items such as health care that were cut in Whitmer's veto measures.

"They are such a small part of the budget, yet so critical," Schmidt said of school and health care funding. "It made no sense to me. Those are cheap shots and blatant disregard for the Upper Peninsula and the islands."

'Geographical discrimination'

Many of the districts do not get a per-pupil funding amount from the state, like city or suburban districts. McKee of Whitefish said his district sends roughly $420,000 to Lansing and gets only $305,000 back, including $216,000 in funding for isolated districts.

"So what that breaks down to now is that my township is sending $420,000 down to the state, and we only receive $99,000 back," McKee said. "A 23.57% return on our property taxes for educating our youth seems like geographical discrimination to me."

Prior to the budget cut, Beaver Island received 47 cents of every $1 it sent to Lansing. After the line-item veto, the districts will get 25 cents back for $1, Cwikiel said.

Robert Vaught, superintendent and principal for the DeTour Area School District that has 173 students, said he is expected to lose $240,000, or 26.2% of his budget, from the cut.

That money allows the district to pay for a reading program, provide 1:1 devices to all students in K-12 so they can access the internet in school — many do not have access at home — and replace a roof at the elementary school, Vaught said.

Drummond Elementary School has 55 K-12 students. A bus ride and a ferry trip delivers students from the mainland to classes each day.

School integral to island life

Kara DePaul, whose 12-year-old daughter attends DeTour schools, was born and raised on Drummond Island and both of her parents were teachers in the district.

"The school serves as our community center and is integral to our way of life," DePaul said. "If funding goes away and the schools closed, it would really hurt the island economy."

Vaught said many of DeTour's students will be first-generation college students and more than half are economically disadvantaged. 

"This travesty, as a political play, will put our students at a continued disadvantage," Vaught said. "The message that the governor has sent is that our students are less important than those who live in more populated areas."

Freelance writer John L. Russell contributed.