By ELIZABETH DANEFF
Capital News Service
LANSING — Leelanau County school budgets could tighten considerably, especially if state funding dips below $6,500 per student, school officials said last week.
State Budget Director Don Gilmer and fiscal experts calculated a $900 million deficit in the state’s general fund, and an estimated $400 million hole in school aid for 2003. The crunch is challenging lawmakers to make quick fixes before Gov. John Engler releases his 2003 budget proposal Feb. 7. The state’s fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
“There’s money that goes into base programs, and then there’s money that goes to other funds,” said Northport Superintendent Richard Cross. “Even if there is an increase in the base grant, we’ll still have to reduce our costs.”
Suttons Bay Superintendent Robert MacEachran is eagerly awaiting the final numbers to be released by the governor. “We’re very anxious to see what will happen so that we can be proactive before the year begins,” MacEachran said.
Gilmer said the general fund would take in $582 million less than previously anticipated, and when other unavoidable factors are added, the deficit jumps to $900 million.
Gilmer and officials from the Senate and House fiscal agencies determined that $10.6 billion will be available for school aid in 2003, an estimated $375 million to $400 million less than earlier hoped for.
“As we all know, the current revenue is causing some challenges,” said Matt Resch, deputy press secretary for Engler. “Clearly, additional funding will most likely not be available.”
School administrators across the state are crossing their fingers, hoping school aid goes unharmed.
Under current law, Michigan schools receive a minimum $6,500 per student. Earlier, that number was expected to increase to $6,700, but many now doubt that will happen.
“If the funding per pupil stays at $6,500 and there’s not the $200 increase as was earlier expected, that’s a considerable amount of money lost,” MacEachran said. “That’s over $24,000.”
Officials at the Michigan Education Association are holding out for the governor’s budget release before making conclusions about school aid for next year.
“We’re doing what many other organizations are doing across the state,” said Karen Schulz, a communications consultant for the MEA. “We’re lobbying to preserve funding for public education because it’s so important for Michigan’s future, but we’re waiting for the governor to release his budget before we determine what would or could happen to our schools.”
Gilmer said he couldn’t think of a department that isn’t going to have to cut costs, and that he hopes to keep per-pupil funding at $6,500. However, he does expect a number of categorical expenditures currently in the budget to not be proposed.
“I’m very concerned about making sure we keep both the categorical and the funding mechanism in place,” said Rep. Jason Allen , R- Traverse City. “I feel that we need to get those dollars back into northern Michigan schools.”
Like most districts around the state, Suttons Bay will have to look carefully at every program it has. Money for staffing, textbooks and technology will be especially tight with little or no additional funding available.
“We’ve had to decrease our staff by four teachers. We’ve laid off two other teachers and are looking at laying off four more,” Cross said.
“Our school board is talking to families about what they think are the most important things for children to have in school,” Cross said. “As we develop our program for next year, we’re going to listen to what the community wants.”
Schulz said the MEA realizes Michigan legislators are making tough choices. “What will happen remains to be seen. We’ve heard the governor and a lot of political officials talking about what may or may not happen. We are still holding out hope that the Legislature will keep funding at what they approved.”
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
By ELIZABETH DANEFF