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Letters from the trenches

Public school officials have begun to speak out about the funding crisis which faces schools across the state. They not only decry the repeated resort to mid-year funding cuts, they also call for a reassessment of how public education is funded. Attached below are links to letters written by two school district superintendents (in PDF format): the first is from Dr. Todd Roberts of the Ann Arbor Public Schools, and the second is from Susan Zurvalec of the Farmington Public Schools. These letters clearly convey the frustration that school officials feel when faced with the funding uncertainties built in to Michigan's system of school funding. They make very compelling reading. From the Roberts letter:
[U]nless major ongoing changes are made in the way the state operates, the deficit will continue and increase in future years. Simply cutting the budget in a few areas or shuffling money around from fund to fund will not address the ongoing and increasing deficit. Since the passage of Proposal A, 90% of Michigan school districts’ funding comes from the State. This legislation also prohibits school districts from going to the local voters to request additional funding for operating expenses.... The bottom line is that the State has not addressed the deficit nor adequately funded Michigan’s schools, and has prevented local school districts from raising the funds it needs to operate.
And from the Zurvalec letter:
There is something drastically wrong with a system that provides an increase in school funding, then post election, turns around and takes the funds back mid-year after school districts’ budgets are in place. Mid-year prorations double the whammy on school budgets because programs and staffing are already in place for the school year while compounding the problem for future years. Moreover, at the same time that the state has adopted the most rigorous high school graduation requirements in the nation, it is forcing school districts to dismantle the very programs that support increased student achievement.


News reports continue to come in about school districts around the state which are in trouble. Many of them have budget deficits to tackle even without mid-year cuts from the state, and many have been relying on "rainy day" funds which are starting to run low or even run out. Some districts are facing declining enrollments, and others blame several years of stagnant levels of state funding. The difficulties are also starting to spark frustration with the uneven levels of school funding that remain even after Proposal A. While some districts are able to spend more than the state's maximum allowance because of "hold harmless" taxes that date to the adoption of Proposal A, those extra amounts are collected solely from local taxes and have remained frozen since 1994. However, these details do not blunt the frustration of officials from districts that make do with the basic allowance, a bit over half of what the highest-spending districts have available.
The Toledo Blade reports that officials of the Monroe public schools are expected to present a plan tomorrow to close two or three elementary schools next year. The district must close a $5 million budget gap for next year, and even with the school closings more cuts will be necessary as their reserve fund runs dry. Other districts in the area are also looking at budget cuts as their reserve funds shrink. http://toledoblade.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070226/NEWS17/702260...
The superintendent of the Ontonegon area public schools (near Ironwood in the northern UP) sent a strongly worded letter about the crisis in school funding to his state Senator and Representative, according to the Ironwood Daily Globe. The official, Superintendent Matt Lukshaities, urged his legislators to support the Governors budget or "any plan that provides for continued investment in our children." His letter also expressed bitterness at the continuing inequalities in per-pupil spending levels, the article reports; the superintendent wondered if the children in his district were somehow less valuable than those in Bloomfield Hills or Grosse Pointe. http://www.ironwooddailyglobe.com/0226oasd.htm
Finally, a Muskegon school official describes the financial difficulties faced by that district in an interview with the Muskegon Chronicle. Retiring assistant superintendent Dean VanZegeren laid much of the blame for school's financial problems on ballooning health care and retirement system costs, both of which, he argues, have outstripped economic growth and tax revenue. He argues for changes in how benefits are vested, and for a revamping of the state retirements system. http://www.mlive.com/news/muchronicle/index.ssf?/base/news-10/1172504853...

According to the Saginaw News, the Saginaw school district is facing a $4.6 million budget deficit next year. School officials says that nearly everything, including layoffs and building closures, are on the table as options to close the gap. The major problem stems from the anticipated loss of 630 students next year which, under the current foundation allowance system, will cost the district nearly $4.5 million in lost revenue. Officials are already planning to close one elementary school this summer, and further cuts could be in the pipeline. Officials and teachers are frustrated after several years of budget cuts, while the system's rainy-day fund also continues to shrink.


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