By LAURA BOHANNON
Capital News Service
LANSING — Michigan’s school districts face a constant supply problem caused by lack of funds, but advocates and state agencies are working to fill the gaps.
“We have situations where we don’t even have textbooks, where we’re having to utilize those free materials that are available for students,” said John Helmholdt, executive director of communications and external affairs for Grand Rapids Public Schools. “Or if we have textbooks, they’re more than 10 years old.
“It’s a challenge for the teachers in preparing to do the instruction, it’s a challenge for the students who are expected to complete the tests and do the homework. It overall has a dramatic impact on…everyday teaching and learning.”
Grand Rapids’ problem is common throughout the state, said Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.
“School districts just can’t afford it,” Cook said of textbooks in districts such as Lansing. “There’s one set (of textbooks) in the classrooms and that’s it, and that’s always concerned us.”
The need for school supplies goes further than textbooks. Bob Wheaton, public information officer for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said there’s a great need for things like pens, notebooks and clothing among pupils.
Health and Human Services works to pitch in for services and items that the public schools’ budgets can’t cover. Through the department’s Pathways to Potential program, caseworkers are sent to work out of schools and provide support to students and families that need it.
“What we see in a number of our Pathways to Potential schools, you know, it’s well into the school year and kids don’t have supplies,” Wheaton said.
Pathways to Potential works with more than 250 schools in 34 counties, according to a list Wheaton sent via email. Among them are eight Grand Rapids Public Schools and Alpine Elementary in the Kentwood Public Schools.
Seven Mason County and four Ottawa County schools are on the list as well, and schools in Alcona, Alpena, Cheboygan, Iosco, Montmorency, Oscoda, Otsego and Presque Isle.
Private foundations also chip in to fill gaps government agencies cannot.
“We rely heavily on donations,” Helmholdt said. “The Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation raises more than $1 million annually to help with basic things like supplies, textbooks, calculators, things like that.”
The Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest union of school personnel, also has created a school supply fund.
“We’ve created that fund to try to do what we could, and teachers across the state not only donate to the fund but they donate materials and supplies,” Cook said.
Cook said the MEA school supply fund has donated large funds and supplies to Pontiac and Benton Harbor and will donate about $30,000 to Flint within the next couple of weeks.
Helmholdt said he would “challenge any lawmaker to come to Grand Rapids Public Schools” to see how students and teachers alike are coping with the lack of funding and therefore a lack of supplies.
Helmholdt said after 20 years of enrollment decline, this is the first year the district has seen an increase in enrollment, up by 160 students. He said even with the increased enrollment and the projected rise in per-pupil funding, Grand Rapids Public Schools still has to make cuts.
“We’re still $3 million in the hole,” Helmholdt said, adding that policymakers and voters should think hard about providing adequate resources for students.
“Think of your own child and what you would want for them,” Helmholdt said. “Think if your child didn’t have the appropriate supplies, didn’t have the appropriate textbooks, was under threat of school closure and district-wide layoffs and all of the instability. What would you do?”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect more locations served by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Pathways to Potential program.
By LAURA BOHANNON