By Kathy Barks Hoffman
LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's deep budget cuts for public schools may force school districts to close buildings, reduce staff benefits, privatize some services, share administrators and offer more online classes.
That might be just what the new Republican governor wants.
Faced with more than 500 separate school districts -- far more than most states -- and a new report that shows that more than half of Michigan's high schools will have fewer than 10 percent of their students graduating this spring ready for college, Snyder is switching the discussion from what money buys to how well districts are doing their jobs.
In the process, he's lumping in districts that have taken steps to shrink staff, close buildings, privatize services and ask teachers to pay a bigger share of their health care costs with those that have avoided many tough choices. The districts that are ahead of the curve will be able to tap a special pool of money in the 2012-13 budget, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said.
But for the upcoming budget year, Snyder wants to hand all school districts cuts of 8 percent to 10 percent. The effective $715-per-student reduction is the result of losing $170 per student in federal money, a $300 cut by Snyder in per-pupil funding and the fact that districts have to pay a bigger share of pensions, costing them $245 per student, according to the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council.
Snyder also would shift $896 million in the school aid fund to colleges and universities, a move most districts see as a betrayal of the promise to use the fund strictly for K-12 schools.
"We value community colleges and universities, but they have alternative means to raise funds. K-12 schools do not," Michigan Association of School Administrators executive director William Mayes said recently.
Snyder says he realizes he's handing a big challenge to school districts, which barely kept up with inflation during eight years under Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
The new Republican governor thinks that by privatizing some services, reducing teacher benefits and sharing services, districts can become more efficient while still providing an excellent education. Others calling for reforms would like to see more districts merge or countywide districts set up, although many communities have fought such moves.
"There could be some districts that have done everything, but I think there's probably still opportunities for every district in our state to continue improvement," Snyder told reporters earlier this week. "There's a path for innovation in many cases."
A recent EPIC-MRA poll shows public education cuts aren't popular. Sixty-two percent oppose Snyder's plan, with 32 percent in favor and 6 percent undecided. The poll surveyed 600 likely voters from Feb. 26 through Tuesday and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Teachers, school administrators and parents crowded into legislative hearings this past week to warn legislators that the cuts could mean less individual attention for students at a time when they're being required to take tougher courses. The speakers pointed out that many of the changes Snyder wants already have been done in many districts, and that teachers are paying 3 percent toward future retiree health costs and making other sacrifices.
"We need to look at ways of improving instruction to children," said Peter Spadafore of the Michigan Association of School Boards. "Choking off funding so we have to put 60 children in a classroom and lay off staff is not the way to do that."
Penny Rutledge, who has a son in fourth grade and a daughter in eighth grade in the Grand Ledge school district just west of Lansing, told lawmakers she's already unhappy her son had to switch to a school in another community because his closed last year.
She worries about the quality of the high school education her daughter will be offered next year if so much money is slashed, especially since her district's bus drivers, cooks and custodians already have taken pay cuts and teachers are paying 30 percent to 47 percent toward their health care. She fears high school busing will be gone by fall.
"When I heard his (Snyder's) proposal, I was stunned and a little angry," Rutledge said. "Clearly Grand Ledge has pursued the best practices the governor has talked about. They had been frugal with the money they'd been given. ... The governor's plan may be simple and efficient, but it's not fair."
Snyder has avoided telling districts what they must do to tighten their belts, and hasn't thrown his support behind bills in the Republican-controlled Legislature that would eliminate tenure, freeze teachers' pay if a contract expires, force teachers to pay at least 20 percent of their health care costs or otherwise affect collective bargaining rights.
But the governor's decision to give less money to education comes at the same time he's proposing cutting business taxes by more than $1 billion in the upcoming budget and $1.8 billion the following year. Most of the lost funds would be made up by eliminating most exemptions and credits on individual income taxes. But it still means less money for education.
Most business leaders say school districts need to adopt the same cost-saving moves many businesses have been forced to make during the recent recession.
"Our members know education is important and it needs to be well funded. But they also know we also have over 500 districts," says Rich Studley, Michigan Chamber of Commerce president and CEO. "I'm hearing a lot more about the need for higher standards and more return for investment."
School districts won't make the fundamental changes they need to make without the wake-up call that's in Snyder's budget proposal, said former GOP House Speaker Paul Hillegonds, now DTE Energy senior vice president for corporate affairs.
"I really do think there has to be pressure on K-12 to make the reforms that they've been so slow to make," he said.
Published: Wed, Mar 9, 2011