Lansing: Michigan schools still face deep cuts in 2011-12

By Kathy Barks Hoffman

Associated Press

LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Michigan school districts are scrambling to figure out what steps they have to take to lessen deep cuts coming in next fall's education funding.

Districts face cuts of $470 per student, but they could shrink that by $100 if they meet several conditions still being worked out by legislators.

The conditions being proposed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and GOP legislative leaders are intended to make districts shave costs, either by getting teachers to pay more toward their health care premiums or by consolidating services with other districts.

Snyder said last week he's glad rising revenues mean he can restore some school funding. The $150 million won't be applied to districts' foundation grants, so the minimum per-pupil grant will slip below $7,000. But school officials agree it will ease the pain for those who qualify for their share.

House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, expects most districts to qualify, shrinking the cut in per-pupil spending from 6 percent to 5 percent in 2011-12. Lawmakers have faced parents and educators angered by the decreasing money for schools, and many are eager to make the cut less harsh.

Many school officials worry the new requirements simply will be more hoops districts will have to jump through. They say the requirements may not save much money in districts already handing out pink slips to scores of teachers in light of the coming cuts.

Thomas Svitkovich, speaking for the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education, which represents 86 superintendents from Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, said Monday that even districts that meet the requirements to shrink the size of their cuts still will be getting $500 to $1,200 less per pupil than they're getting this school year.

He notes the cuts wouldn't be needed if the budget being finalized by lawmakers didn't shift $395 million that traditionally would have gone to public schools to universities and community colleges. Districts rely on the state for their operating revenue and have no choice but to absorb the decreases.

In the Wayne County community of Wyandotte south of Detroit, K-12 "class sizes are going up to 35 to 40 students, and that's not going to change with the money that's coming back to them," Svitkovich said. Across southeast Michigan, "you're looking at split classes, you're looking at school closures ... a lot of agony."

Some of the districts are struggling because they're losing money for providing bilingual education and other services not covered by the per-pupil grant. Districts also on the hook for pension payments for school employees that average $245 per pupil, according to the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council.

Snyder said last week the state will use some of its revenue windfall to pick up $160 million of the pension cost, saving districts an average of $100 per student, according to a budget office spokesman. Districts will get that help without having to demonstrate "best practices."

But to see their per-pupil grant cut go from $470 to $370, they'll have meet four of these five conditions:

-- Have school employees pay at least 10 percent of their health care premiums;

-- Show they're working toward consolidating services

-- Obtain competitive bids for at least one non-instructional service totaling more than $50,000.

-- Create a public dashboard showing finances and graduation and dropout rates;

-- Have the district be the policyholder on its health insurance, a move that could make it harder to contract with insurance provider MESSA that has ties to the Michigan Education Association.

Don Wotruba, deputy director of the Michigan Association of School Boards, welcomes the money being restored but worries many school districts still will find themselves in the red even if they qualify for the smaller funding reduction.

"If you're a district that can get the $100-a-kid on the retirement savings and you can meet all of the incentives (to get the other $100), that's definitely a big help for this year," he said. "There are still districts that are going to become deficit districts under this. There's no way around that. They can make all the cuts they want and they still won't be able to get there."

Published: Wed, May 25, 2011