U.P. schools may face bleak budget picture

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Capital News Service
LANSING — Budget cuts for the state’s next fiscal year could hit Upper Peninsula schools hard, even with promises that the education system will be protected.
“The picture is very bleak,” said Dennis Harbour, superintendent of Houghton-Portage Township Schools. “We will have to reduce personnel and programs.”
The Marquette Public School District could also be hit hard as falling enrollment and the budget cuts cause revenue to decline.
Parkview Elementary School in Marquette was closed after the 1998-99 school year due to declining enrollment.
Senate Majority Leader Dan DeGrow, R-Port Huron, said this week that the Senate’s first priority is protecting the education system, a statement backed up by the state Budget Office.
“The governor and the Legislature have repeatedly promised to do their best to maintain a per pupil funding minimum of $6,500,” said Kelly Chesney, communications director for the Budget Office.
A planned increase in the per pupil funding of $200 for each student could be put on hold as an estimated shortfall in the School Aid Fund for 2003 of $375 million means some cuts would have to be made.
The most recent estimate by Budget Director Don Gilmer is that the School Aid Fund will see revenues of slightly less than $10.6 billion in 2002-03, an increase of $383.6 million from last year, but still not enough for planned expenditures.
The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
General fund revenues are expected to total $8.72 billion, a decline of $34 million, or 0.39 percent, from the 2001-02 fiscal year. The decline leaves the expected revenues almost $100 million short of the revenues from the 1997-98 fiscal year.
“With less dollars available for state services, (the Legislature) has to make some cuts,” Chesney said.
Questions arise concerning where the money to cover the shortfall could be coming from.
“Any shortfall that’s coming in the School Aid Fund would have to come from the Budget Stabilization Fund,” said Rep. Steve Adimini, D-Marquette.
The Budget Stabilization Fund is the state’s rainy day money set aside to cover a budget shortage such as the current one.
There have also been reports that money from the tobacco settlement or from the state general fund could be diverted to education.
School districts might have to use some of their own rainy day funds as well.
“Right now, we’re looking at strategies as to how we’re going to reduce our budget,” Harbour said.
Legislators and government officials are hopeful that this economic downturn will be short-lived.
“We are starting to see signs that the Michigan economy is turning around,” Chesney said.
Rep. Adimini is less optimistic in his outlook.
“We hope it’s a short while, but we fear it will be for a long while,” he said.
Even if this economic slowdown lasts, officials at the Michigan Education Association hope that the students are not forgotten.
“There were lots of promises made to the children of Michigan and hopefully the legislators will keep these,” said Margaret Trimer-Hartley, MEA director of communications.
The MEA points out that when Proposal A, which protected public school funding, passed in 1995, the Legislature had to borrow $800 million from the general fund to cover the money it had promised.
“We are hopeful that we can keep the general grant at the $6,700 per student that was promised and keep our programs running,” Trimer-Hartley said.
“Less education will not help us weather this crisis.”
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism

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