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State to miss school budget deadline

Taylor Owens, Staff Writer, reports the mandated deadline for school districts to submit their budgets to the state of Michigan is June 30, but the state isn't even close to telling schools how much funding they will receive to draw up those budgets.

“I have not heard anything hopeful,” said Hastings Finance Director Tim Berlin.

State sources make up nearly 80 percent of local school districts' funding, much of it in per pupil allowance, but schools do not yet know how much they will receive in per pupil funding for the 2019-20 school year. Regardless, districts are rushing to comply with the required deadline by putting together budgets based on their best guessing.

“You're kind of throwing darts at a bulletin board,” Delton Kellogg Finance Director Andy Nurenberg said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the Senate and House of Representatives each have their own plans for school funding, and schools are stuck waiting to see what they will receive. Since the deadline for the state government to file its budget isn't until Oct. 1, school administrators aren't holding their breath for quick answers. So, school district financial officials are basing their best guessing on reports they receive from organizations like the Michigan School Business Officials.

Maple Valley Finance Director Darryl Sydloski said he has heard schools may not know how much funding they will receive until this fall. Even if the state passes the budget next month, administrators said it likely won't make an impact until deep into the school year when the schools are passing budget amendments.

“Earlier is always better,” Lakewood Superintendent Randall Fleenor said. “We've been used to that over the past seven years, but with the changeover [to a new governor] that naturally slows this process down, but not this much.”

Most districts are basing their budget estimates around the House budget proposal because it represents the lowest increase in funding. Administrators said its better to budget conservatively and add items to the budget later on than to have to make cuts. Berlin said if Hastings received additional funding, it would likely fill open teaching positions and add additional literacy coaches to help with the coming third grade reading law.

Schools already have to make projections for how many students they will have the next school year when budgeting, so having to guess how much they will receive per student compounds the issue.

“You really can't count students until you see the whites of their eyes,” said Thornapple Kellogg Assistant Superintendent Craig McCarthy. “A lot of things are still up in the air with the budget.”

Local school districts would see a $180 fund increase with the House proposal, which is about the same as the governor's proposal, but funding is more complex than just the per pupil increase. The House proposal would eliminate the $25 in additional funds for high school students and would not provide additional at-risk funding. Each of the three proposals funds the schools in different ways, with the governor's proposal representing the highest increase. But the governor's proposal would also rely heavily on the passage of the gas tax, which has not had much traction in the legislature.

“We're dealing with a lot of these spinning plates and unknowns,” Fleenor said. But he added he was feeling optimistic since the three plans had at least a $180 increase. Previous years have had an increase around $120, and Lakewood budgeted for less. If the increase is $180 or higher, Fleenor said apart of it will go to staff.

Schools also saw cuts to their federal funding, which hits multiple programs, even if federal sources only represent around five percent of school districts' budgets. Hastings had a Title 1 funding drop from $430,000 to $375,000. The school had to cut back on supplies such as books and hours for elementary school literacy coaches. With the third grade reading law going into effect this fall, forcing the retention of third grade students who cannot prove they are not more than one year behind in reading, the cuts come at a difficult time.

Other schools have been able to absorb the funds without cutting programming. Delton Kellogg was unable to find a candidate for an open position last year, which would have been paid for with Title 1 funding, so it is able use those leftover funds to cover this year's cuts.

Berlin said the federal government cuts came from a philosophy that states should be funding those programs, but Michigan has not picked up the slack.

Next to other state's funding for K-12 education, Michigan ranks near the bottom, according to an education policy report released by Michigan State University in January.

“After adjusting for inflation, total K-12 education funding declined by 30 percent between 2002 and 2015,” the report stated. “Seventy-four percent of this decline was due to declining state support for schools. Per-pupil revenue declined by 22 percent during this same period.”

The report, by MSU professors and researchers, found Michigan ranked last for funding growth since 1995, and last in proficiency growth from 2003 to 2015.

“While the number of at-risk students has increased significantly, inflation-adjusted at-risk funding per at-risk student has plunged by over 60 percent since 2001,” researchers said. “The state underfunds special education, forcing districts to redirect $500 per general education student to make up the difference.”

Meanwhile, the report pointed out, the state's requirements and expectations for education have been going up, and it has asserted more control over curriculum, student assessment and personnel policies.

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