Governor, lawmakers seek school funding boost

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Capital News Service

LANSING — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s 2020 budget proposal would increase school funding by more than a half-billion dollars.

The boost to the School Aid Fund would come from a proposed transfer of all higher education funding — which has in part relied on K-12 education dollars for almost a decade — back to the General Fund.

The increase would provide an additional $235 million to foundation allowances, which is the state’s funding of basic classroom needs and daily operations. That amounts to $120 to $180 per student, with the largest increases going to districts with the lowest foundation allowances.

Whitmer’s budget proposal also calls for an additional $120 million in special education funding, $102 million for at-risk students and $50 million for career and technical education.

Of course, the transfer is far from guaranteed. If it fails, the governor says it’s up to the Legislature to develop a backup plan.

“I am not negotiating against myself,” Whitmer said when asked about an alternative.

“I put a real solution on the table, and if the Legislature isn’t ready to embrace my solution, I look “forward to seeing theirs,” she told Capital News Service.

The Senate’s budget plan, which recently passed the Appropriations Committee, proposes $107 million more for foundational allowances than Whitmer’s plan but a combined $202.5 million less for special education, at-risk students and career and technical education.

“I am proud of the responsible budget plan we have put together,” committee chair Jim Stamas, R-Midland, said in a statement. “I look forward to working with my legislative colleagues and the governor to finalize a balanced budget on time that reflects taxpayer priorities and pocketbooks.”

If Whitmer’s budget does go through, Whitefish Township Community Schools in Chippewa County would receive the lower $120-a-pupil increase. But unlike most districts receiving the minimum, the district largely funds its foundational allowance through local property taxes, Superintendent Tom McKee said.

With additional state funding, Whitefish Township schools could better support programs like its student greenhouse, McKee said. Students grow fruits and vegetables used in their meals, saving the district $1,500 annually on its food service budget.

“Because of our remote and rural location, we’re all about providing opportunities for our students,” McKee said. The proposed funding increase “would help make those opportunities possible inside and outside of the classroom.”

While Whitefish Township schools would get the minimum basic funding increase under the governor’s plan, it would receive one of the highest total funding increases in the state. That’s largely because Whitmer’s budget plan earmarks $395 per pupil for the district’s at-risk population.

About 94 percent of students in the district fall below the poverty line, McKee said. Since the district  doesn’t receive much help for at-risk students as it stands, a nearly $400 bump per pupil would allow the district to meet children’s educational needs in a more targeted way, he said.

“We’re an area where additional support is beneficial to our kids because of our poverty level,” McKee said. With additional funding, “we’d be looking at hiring at least one more certified teacher at the early elementary level, so we can have some assistance in early literacy.”

That sounds good, but the issue is complicated when placed in the context of Whitmer’s plan for state spending as a whole.

The Whitefish Township district is caught in a Catch-22. McKee said that additional education funding is crucial, but the gas tax increase that would go along with it would hurt local families who often drive 60-plus miles for their jobs in the isolated region.

“This puts the district in a unique spot,” McKee said. “We have to support this (budget) that’s ultimately going to hurt the rest of our community who pays our taxes.”

The Senate’s budget plan doesn’t include the gas tax increase, according to Stamas’ office.

Michigan Education Association (MEA) President Paula Herbart said it’s refreshing to see the needs of public educators and students taken seriously. But with so many moving parts to the budget and a divided government, it will be a challenge to get Whitmer’s plan through, according to the MEA, the state’s largest union of school personnel.

After decades of disinvestment, it’s about time Michigan turned the corner and supported its students and educators, MEA communications consultant David Crim said.

“Does it fill the hole completely? No, but it took us 25 years to get into this mess — we’re not going to get out of it in six months,” Crim said. “That is a huge step in the right direction, and getting that budget passed — getting those resources into schools — will start to help address, at the local level, some of these issues.”

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