Detroit area educators say they need funding answers to plan for fall

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

School leaders from Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties said they need answers now on what school funding levels will be for the fall so they can plan to instruct students, whether it be in school buildings or at home.

Otherwise, Michigan school districts will be forced to take money out of current fund balances or go into deficit to address the estimated $2.39 billion revenue drop in the current and next year's state school budgets.

That would amount to a cut of about $685 for every student in the state. The new budget year begins July 1 for districts.

Wayne RESA Superintendent Randy Liepa

"We need answers as to what our resources are going to be," Randy Liepa, superintendent of Wayne RESA, said Thursday. "As we prepare for the fall, we can't wait for this to be continued to be debated at state and federal levels."

"They can't reduce staff in the middle of August," Liepa said. "They have to do that now."

Wanda Cook-Robinson, superintendent of Oakland Schools, said in some of her smaller districts, a potential cut of $800 per student could potentially put them out of business.

"They don’t have enough fund equity to survive that," Cook-Robinson said.

Macomb ISD Superintendent Mike DeVault said the proposed cuts come at a time when districts are preparing for a fall return that will require millions more in funding for PPE gear, including masks for students and staff, thermometers, more bus drivers and daily disinfection of buildings.

DeVault said he estimates he would have to spend $2 million a month on masks for the new school year across 300 buildings and for 130,000 students. Thermometers run $85 apiece, he said.

"It’s a cost we don’t have in our budgets," DeVault said.

Meanwhile, state school Superintendent Michael Rice said Congress is the only entity that has the ability to spare Michigan students from $2.39 billion in cuts in education funding and urged educators and the public Thursday to plead with federal officials for help.

"No child's education should be harmed because he or she grew up in part during a pandemic. It is absolutely incumbent on Congress to make sure our children are protected — not forgotten — at this moment. We need to preserve educational services for children," Rice said.

New state superintendent Dr. Michael Rice, superintendent of Kalamazoo Public Schools is seen in his office in Kalamazoo on Wednesday, May 15, 2019.

Faced with an estimated $2.39 billion revenue drop in the current and next year's state school budgets — amounting to a cut of about $685 for every student int he state —  Michigan educators have said they need federal and state support to continue to pay staff, provide services to students such as meals, and provide extensive safety measures for when schools reopen.

On Thursday, Rice held a conference call with members of the media to say the estimated $685 cut per pupil would be the biggest reduction in school finance history and 50% larger than the record-setting cut of $470 per student implemented by state lawmakers in 2011.

"This cut could be substantially greater and much more harmful," Rice said. "We are under-funding public education in Michigan. ... It's the conclusion of six studies in six years. ... And now we are staring at the possibility of cuts in education."

Rice also called upon Congress to help Michigan bridge the digital divide among its 1.5 million students. According to an April survey, 30% lack access to a laptop and 30% lack access to broadband internet.

At least 300,000 students in Michigan lack internet access or a computer at home while they are shut out of schools during the pandemic, according to the survey by Michigan school officials.

According to a national survey of 600 public school teachers conducted in early May by Educators for Excellence, 24% reported that all of their students had access to a computer or tablet to use for school work.

Rice said he was speaking about technology at home, where students have been doing schoolwork since classroom buildings were shuttered in March due to COVID-19.

"Home is now an extension of school, where school takes place for the time being," Rice said. "We need the technology, devices and connectivity in much the same way we need other school supplies. Technology has become integral to the education of our children."

Asked what the cost was of bridging the digital divide in Michigan, Rice said amounts ranged and that in urban areas the issue was around poverty while in rural areas it was about economies of scale.

He also referred to a recent announcement by U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue that the federal government would invest $22.5 million to expand high-speed internet in three rural west Michigan counties.

"That gives you a sense of what we are talking about," Rice said.

Last month, the Consensus Revenue Estimating Conference estimated a $1.2 billion cut to the existing year’s School Aid Fund, money that’s largely already been spent as the end of the academic year nears, and $1.1 billion in next year’s budget.

Educators said they estimated a $685-per-pupil reduction to local school budgets. In a school district with 10,000 students, it would amount to $6.8 million. The Whitmer administration has not yet proposed a budget reduction and is hoping for an immediate federal cash infusion.

If not resolved in 30 days through budget transfers or cuts, decreases to state education funding would kick in automatically through a pro-rated formula that divides the cuts among the groups receiving state aid through the School Aid Fund. 

If the the state waits the full 30 days to take action, it would push the cuts to mid-June, roughly two weeks before the the beginning of the new school year. 

Last month, U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, hosted a virtual roundtable with school leaders from Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties to highlight how much Michigan stands to gain in federal funding for education in the proposed $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill passed last week by the House.

The proposed funding in the HEROES Act includes $500 billion for state budgets. For Michigan, that would include more than $7 billion in 2020 and more than $6 billion in 2021 to help with state funding priorities, said Levin, who is vice chair of the Education and Labor Committee.

Michigan is projecting a budget shortfall of $3.2 billion as a result of the pandemic.

The act also includes more than $100 billion to maintain access to education directly, including $90 billion for state fiscal stabilization funds, Levin said. He said that would bring Michigan about $2.7 billion.