Editorial: Give schools budget certainty now

The Detroit News

As Michigan deals with a huge budget hole, a casualty of the pandemic, the state’s public schools are in need of certainty. The new budget year for schools starts Wednesday, meaning they are now operating in the dark in terms of the kind of cuts necessary for the upcoming academic year.

A budget agreement this week among Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addressed a $3.2 billion shortfall in the current budget year with a mix of federal coronavirus relief funds, state savings and spending reductions.

That deal largely shields schools from harm in the current fiscal year. But the state’s leaders must now turn to the 2021 budget, which holds the potential for much steeper cuts without the promise of additional federal aid. The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

The state can’t count on that funding. Nor can schools. Michigan faces a $3 billion shortfall next year, and it will be hard to protect schools from cuts.

Returning to the classroom poses a host of challenges for schools. Administrators predict more than $1 billion in additional expenses related to keeping students safe, assuming they return to the classroom in the fall. The Tri-County Alliance for Public Education put together that estimate and has sent a letter to Whitmer detailing the anticipated costs.

More:Michigan schools need $1 billion to reopen safely, group tells Whitmer

The funding would provide masks, thermometers, cleaning supplies and additional online resources for students. 

If schools do not receive $1 billion from the state, they estimate they’d have to cut or reallocate $665 per pupil to make up the difference. This would come on top of a $700 per student cut next school year, schools say.

On Tuesday, Whitmer announced her return to school plan and said she'd offer schools $256 million to help cover these costs — a far cry from what they say they need.

More:Whitmer sets guidelines, offers $256M to help schools reopen in fall

More:Jacques: Crisis reveals school leadership woes

Given the state’s precarious budget situation, school leaders are calling on Congress to send them more assistance. 

While Democrats in the U.S. House have passed a $3 trillion coronavirus aid bill (the HEROES Act) that does include nearly $60 billion for schools, the Republican majority in the Senate is not keen on taking up the package.

So that means schools are going to have to start looking for cuts.

Some districts will spared too much pain. For instance, in late March Congress passed a $2 trillion CARES Act, which offered school districts roughly $13 billion. Michigan schools got about $350 million, but the funding is weighted toward districts with the highest concentration of poor students. 

The Detroit Public Schools Community District, with 80% of its 50,000 students coming from low-income households, cashed in on that federal aid, receiving nearly one-fourth of the state’s allocation. 

The funding “will largely offset estimated state aid cuts over the next two fiscal years; this will allow the district to avoid teacher layoffs and salary reductions, while maintaining all of its current academic programs,” according to the Citizens Research Council of Michigan. 

And traditional districts (not charter schools) within Wayne County also benefit from a 2016 enhancement millage that brings in $77 million in additional funds each year, which can be used for any expenses.

Other districts are already slashing their budgets. Kalamazoo Public Schools recently approved a budget reduction of $7.4 million. 

Administrators should take a hard look at non-instructional employees, which generally comprise half of a school’s staff, before letting classroom teachers go.

Administrators should take a hard look at non-instructional employees, which generally comprise about half of a school’s staff, before letting classroom teachers go.

To do that, schools also need flexibility to make cuts. Yet an executive order from Whitmer this spring informed schools they had to “continue to pay school employees while redeploying staff to provide meaningful work” and honor collective bargaining agreements. 

We commend the Legislature and governor for working together on the current budget patch. But now they must turn to the hard work of ironing out next year’s budget. Schools especially need that certainty.