Wotruba: New priorities for school boards

Don Wotruba

A new year and new legislative session bring new priorities for the Michigan Association of School Boards. Our group represents more than 4,000 elected school board members in over 500 districts across the state.

Over the fall, MASB’s government relations team traveled across the state holding regional meetings and conducting surveys to gather input from these elected officials on the biggest issues facing their district and potential solutions to move forward. From those meetings, a few over-arching themes were reached.

First, school board members want local control, especially on things like bargaining, curriculum and budgets. This message could not have been more clear and consistent across the state: “Washington and Lansing need to leave us alone.”

Second, our school board members recognize the inherent value in ongoing training, both for new and seasoned board members. Research shows that board members who have the fundamental skills and knowledge needed to make effective decisions at the board table are able to more successfully support student achievement and financial stability in their districts.

Third, we must maintain the integrity of Proposal A. This begins with using School Aid Funds only for Pre-K-12th grade public education. However, we also know that each child comes to school at a different level of preparedness. Each variation comes with a different expenditure, yet the state provides revenue at a fixed dollar amount. We must examine the costs of delivering education and adjust our school funding system accordingly based on need. We believe the state-commissioned Education Finance Study provides a great starting point for this discussion and that the legislature should immediately consider its findings and recommendations, especially for at-risk and English language learner students.

Further, as changes to state tax policy are considered, it needs to be acknowledged how those changes affect those public entities that receive the revenue. The School Aid Fund and local revenues need to be protected from all negative tax revenue changes made at the state level. Last year alone 16 bills were adopted that systematically cut an indeterminate amount from the School Aid Fund. While not one of these bills by itself had a significant nominal impact, we must recognize its cumulative affect.

Finally, we support legislation to end unfunded mandates and determine actual costs of legislation, especially for the new third-grade reading proficiency law. Over the years, local governments, including school districts, have been given more and more to do or abide by without funding to help make it happen. Legislation was proposed in past sessions to support a fiscal note with every piece of legislation to determine its actual cost. We encourage the new legislature to revisit these bills and take action to adopt standards that will create an environment of trust between local units of government and the state Legislature.

We look forward to working with the new Legislature and are hopeful they also stand ready and willing to work with us and their local school board on these important issues, as we all work towards the shared goal of ensuring all Michigan children have access to a free, quality and equitable public education.

Don Wotruba is executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards.