Wait for federal aid worries some schools

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Capital News Service
LANSING—No stranger to budget cuts, public schools have been forced to cut some classes and give out pink slips, despite hoped-for help from Uncle Sam.
President Obama’s recent $26 billion package to aid state employees—$10 billion of which will go to education—would seem to be just what some Southwest Michigan schools need.
However, some officials say they’re worried they might not benefit from the money.
The federal legislation passed in August—after districts decided to lay off teachers and other employees due to lack of cash.
Michigan will get $318 million from Washington, but state lawmakers haven’t yet decided how much each district will get, let alone how schools can use the money, school officials said.
Sturgis, Three Rivers and St. Joseph are among the districts waiting for the decision.
“The timing is not ideal,” Al Skibbe, superintendent of St. Joseph Public Schools, said. “We always welcome the influx of money, but as of right now, there is no guarantee that we’ll get any money.”
Skibbe said his district cut eight teachers, in addition to other budget cuts, to lessen costs by $800,000. That means larger class sizes for his high school of about 970 students this fall.
Although class already started, Skibbe said it may be possible to add more teachers with the money the district might get, but timeliness is key.
“As you get into a midyear kind of thing, then to totally disrupt a classroom becomes almost undoable,” he said.
Although Skibbe’s district isn’t alone in worrying, the director of public affairs at the Michigan Education Association (MEA), Doug Pratt, says the poor timing of the law hurts only some districts. The MEA is the state’s largest union of school employees.
The federal government’s intentions couldn’t be clearer, he said.
“There are school districts that can take this money right now and add people,” said Pratt.
Three Rivers Community Schools is one of the districts that won’t have problems with the timing of the aid, but Superintendent Roger Rathburn said he understands why other districts do.
“It impacts every district a little bit differently,” he said. “A lot of times, timing is a problem. It’s hard to go in there and restructure your entire district after the school year has started.”
Rathburn said he remains hopeful that the federal government is trying to do its best for all public schools.
“There’s difficult decisions to be made and none of them are good” for everybody, said Rathburn. “Fortunately, at least the federal government recognizes it.”
Sturgis Superintendent Robert Olsen said the money will be welcome, but won’t be a long-term solution to the district’s financial needs.
The stimulus money is a one-time-only bailout, meaning if a school district doesn’t use the money, it may not be able to get more anytime soon, he said.
Olsen said Sturgis didn’t lay off teachers this year, but he understands why the extra money may come too late in the game for some districts.
“We’ve already started school,” said Olsen. “The feds and the state government, because of their inability to create a budget at a state level, left all school districts in Michigan hanging.”
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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