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Michigan can’t count on feds for bailout

Michigan’s school leaders have been trying to get the attention of lawmakers and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer all summer, pleading for some budget certainty.

It’s true that the Legislature and Whitmer’s budget director had to make their first priority ironing out the shortfalls in the current fiscal year, and they were able to do this and shield schools from cuts. But federal bailout funds largely made this possible, and the state can’t count on a similar influx of relief aid to fill the holes in the next budget.

At least not anytime soon. And time is of the essence for schools, as they try to figure out back-to-school plans.

The next fiscal year starts Oct. 1, yet schools started their budget year July 1 and the school year opens after Labor Day — or before for many districts.

“Districts have been putting together the best possible reopening plans throughout the summer, and the goal of every superintendent was to at least have an option for kids to return to classrooms this fall,” says Robert McCann, executive directive of the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education. “But as the summer has dragged on and we’ve seen no action from the Legislature on the K-12 budgets, it’s made implementing those plans nearly impossible.”

Congressional leaders claim they are close to an agreement on the next round of coronavirus aid, but nothing is certain. Senate Republicans and House Democrats remain $2 trillion (yes, with a “t”) apart on their respective bailouts. They agree a large influx is needed for schools. At this point, Republicans have proposed more for K-12 than Democrats, with $70 billion set aside for schools.

Michigan’s budget director, Chris Kolb, has called on Congress for more support, as has Whitmer. And even some Republican lawmakers have said they want to see what the federal government offers.

Still, there’s no guarantee aid will arrive. Given the impending start of school, our state’s leaders must put together a budget based on current realities, and projections have shown a $3 billion shortfall in the next fiscal year’s budget. This comes at a time when schools say they need a significant increase in funds to help cover costs of PPE and other safety measures to protect children and staff from the virus.

The bottom line is school officials need to know what kind of budget cuts are coming, so that they can plan accordingly in regard to staffing and other decisions.

If federal assistance comes after that, then the state can make budget adjustments at that time. But it’s not a good reason to delay negotiations.

A spokesman for House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, says “conversations are still going on between the two appropriations chairs and the state budget office.” A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, says talks have been “productive” and that the Senate is “eager to provide certainty to schools and parents.”

That’s a hopeful sign, given lawmakers want to make sure they’ve reached an agreement with the governor’s budget office. Remember last year that Whitmer vetoed about 150 line items from the legislative budget and moved large sums of money around in department budgets, which did not thrill GOP leaders.

Schools already face an incredible challenge in just figuring out how to reach their students. The least our lawmakers and the governor can do is offer them clear guidance on funding — even if the news is that big cuts are needed.

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