Coalition wants $275M more in direct state aid for classrooms

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A coalition of public school advocates on Thursday proposed an alternative to Gov. Rick Snyder’s education budget that would give school districts $250 to $291 more per student next year.

The alternative budget proposal would provide school districts with $167 more per student in base funding than Snyder proposed earlier this month by eliminating $186.2 million in line-item categorical programs in the School Aid Fund. The items are mostly programs Snyder created to reward achievement and the adoption of cost-effective practices.

The proposal, dubbed the “Classrooms and Kids” budget, also would require lawmakers to dedicate an extra $88.9 million in General Fund money to the School Aid Fund. It would result in $275.1 million going directly to public classrooms.

The coalition includes public school associations as well as the intermediate school districts in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. School leaders and advocates announced the alternative plan Thursday during a press conference at the state Capitol.

“For the first time in years, we have a budget proposal that focuses on students first,” said Lori Bucholz, a fifth grade teacher in Grand Ledge Public Schools.

Categorical education expenditures the group proposes eliminating include $80 million in grants for school districts that engage in so-called “best practices” in management, $46.4 million for schools that show high academic achievement and $9.38 million for the Michigan Virtual University.

Dan Behm, superintendent of Forest Hills Public Schools in Kent County, said the categorical funding “benefits some at the expense of all.”

Still, some districts rely on those grants as part of their overall funding.

Randy Liepa, superintendent of Livonia schools, said under Snyder’s budget, his district would get an extra $1.2 million, but faces a $2.4 million deficit from the projected loss of 300 students.

The alternative budget plan would give Livonia schools a $70-per-student increase over the governor’s plan after they lose $52 for each student from the elimination of the best practices grants, Liepa said.

“That’s a lot better than we’ve talked about in other years,” said Liepa, who attended the press conference with other education leaders.

The alternative plan also contains an increase of $10 million in a $308 million pot of extra money for school districts deemed at-risk because of low academic achievement or financial troubles.

Earlier Thursday morning during a legislative hearing, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan supported spending more money on at-risk schools to marshal resources to struggling schools “on the cusp of falling apart.”

Flanagan presented his quarterly report on school districts with budget deficits to a joint House and Senate school appropriations committee.

According to the report, 46 school districts began the 2014 fiscal year with a budget deficit and eight districts project they will eliminate their deficits by June 30, when the fiscal year ends.

But eight school districts — Albion, Flint, Pinckney, Bedford, Muskegon, Oak Park, Bangor and Lincoln Consolidated in Washtenaw County — project their deficits will worsen this school year, according to Flanagan’s report.

Two school districts and two charter schools began the school year with a positive budget balance but project to be in a deficit by July. They include Iron Mountain Public Schools in the Upper Peninsula and South Lake Schools in Macomb County, the Battle Creek Montessori Academy and the Detroit Public Safety Academy, according to the report.

Flanagan expressed disappointment Thursday that none of the struggling school districts have been enticed by $5 million in money the state is offering to districts that draw up plans for consolidating with a neighboring district.

“We didn’t get any takers and that’s a bad sign, because there’s room for consolidation,” Flanagan told reporters.

The schools chief has previously advocated for countywide school districts to consolidate management of the state’s nearly 860 school districts and charter schools.

Flanagan told lawmakers they may need to give superintendents more power to make tough budget decisions to “give cover to elected officials” on school boards who lack the political will to “pull the trigger” and close underused school buildings.

“It’s the hardest one to do,” Flanagan said of closing schools. “It’s the one the community comes most unglued about.”
(517) 371-3660