Mich. officials plead for resources as schools face new year with no funding certainty

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

With the first day of school just weeks away in Michigan, superintendents say they are being forced to move into a new year with no funding certainty from the state and are abandoning plans to start classes in-person.

State officials estimate Michigan is facing a $3 billion shortfall in its upcoming budget, which takes effect Oct. 1. A consensus revenue estimating conference will be held Aug. 24, when state officials will detail the current shortfall. 

Schools are facing more than $1 billion in new costs to plan for reopening this year to provide personal protective equipment, implement safety measures and ensure, to the best extent possible, the health and safety of both students and staff, said Robert McCann, executive director of the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education.

“Lansing has ‘borrowed’ billions of dollars from our K-12 school budgets over the past decade because lawmakers have chosen not to prioritize the education of our kids," McCann said Friday during a "State of Michigan Schools” roundtable with Michigan superintendents.

"Now, more than ever, that simply has to change. Lawmakers still have an opportunity to pass a clean K-12 spending bill immediately that utilizes general fund dollars to make up the deficit in the School Aid Fund and ensure schools receive the resources and funding certainty they critically need as they attempt to finalize reopening plans. We’re out of time for excuses. Our students need action.”

On July 28, state budget director Chris Kolb said cuts to education and public safety in Michigan will be "unavoidable" unless federal lawmakers step up with more financial aid.

Kolb and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have called on President Donald Trump, the GOP-controlled U.S. Senate and the Democratic-controlled U.S. House to negotiate a new relief plan that provides more federal cash to states as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to slash government revenues.

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Superintendents across the state are announcing plans to reopen schools for the 2020-21 school year — a combination of online and face-to-face learning — and say they need financial certainty to move forward.

“As we plan for the 2020-21 school year, superintendents across the state are working diligently to provide our students with the best possible learning options for the fall, given the uncertainties of the current environment,” Rochester Schools Superintendent Robert Shaner said.

“No matter how good those plans are, school districts are facing an uphill battle, not just because of the uncertain nature of this virus, but because of the funding shortfalls that make it difficult to meet the challenges associated with returning our students and staff to school safely."

Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said the governor's No. 1 priority when considering school reopening is protecting kids, educators and support staff.

"The governor has continually called on the federal government to provide additional support to states like Michigan to send more resources to our classrooms to keep them safe for our kids," Brown said. "Since Governor Whitmer took office, she's made it clear that properly funding K-12 education is a top priority."

Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said he and his caucus members are eager to reach consensus with the House and the Whitmer administration to provide certainty to schools.

"The Senate would characterize ongoing discussions as productive and hopes to take legislative action soon," McCann said.

Gideon D'Assandro, spokesman for House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, said conversations on the policy changes to help schools reopen safely are still ongoing between the House, Senate and the administration.

State Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, chair of the House Appropriations K-12 budget subcommittee, said on Friday that educators' concerns are valid but the matter comes down to the sources of funding in Michigan.

"A lot of the sources of the lost money is from the stifling of the economy by Governor Whitmer," Miller said. "When I and many others pushed back in the spring and in June, we had the strictest economic controls in the nation. I said, 'hold on, this affects education funding and everything.'

"We don’t have as many magic money options as the federal government does. We won't have their borrowing power. The state has no quick, easy solutions. ... We haven't been holding back some solutions."

Besides financial help, superintendents say they still need policy changes on rules for seat time and student counts, which determine per-pupil funding for districts.

Randy Liepa, superintendent of Wayne RESA, said districts are all planning their return to school and need to know what the rules are.

"We need to know how much money we have, policies around seat time waivers so you can count virtual students, so they know how many teachers they can require," Liepa said. "Remote or not, it doesn’t matter. They have to be prepared to accept students at some point in the year and they need a budget for that."

Mike DeVault, superintendent of the Macomb Intermediate School District, said his districts are ready for the start of school, but they need funding information to make critical decisions on staffing.

"Right now, people are uncertain whether they can keep people employed all year no matter what model I use, knowing these financial implications," DeVault said. "This year, it's way more difficult to make concrete decisions than what we've had in the past."