The recent article in our local newspaper about the financial challenge faced by Iron Mountain Schools prompted folks to ask me questions about school funding in Michigan as well as financial challenges in our district.
Because I am certain there are more folks with questions about this topic, now appears to be a good time to start a conversation about the ongoing and worsening fiscal challenges faced by Michigan's public schools. One of the main reasons so many districts are having financial difficulties is due to the cut made to per pupil funding after 2011, which has not been restored.
Last Monday our school hosted a meeting with school board members from our and from other area districts with State Rep. Ed McBroom. My hope in providing an opportunity for Rep. McBroom to hear about concerns from school leaders is that he will be aware of what challenges schools face at home. We had a good and open conversation. Rep. McBroom has made a number of efforts aimed at improving what public schools can do and shares concerns for the future of public schools in our region.
Fiscal challenges were a main portion of our discussion.
Rep. McBroom was reminded, by myself and others, that schools are still not close to where they were in basic foundation per pupil funding in 2011. We also discussed the fact that Lansing has passed along other costs to districts, some of which it has provided some help in paying for and others it has not; future funding for new or higher line items in the budget are not promised.
This is not to mention the normal costs of inflation on an annual basis. If schools had maintained the level of basic, per pupil funding received in 2011 and seen adjustments for the annual inflation rate in each year starting in 2011 until now, school districts would receive a minimum of $7,663 per student.
Our costs have increased annually and our per pupil funding remains far short of what would have been needed to keep up with simple inflation. Still, a full restoration of funding to the 2011 level would be an improvement over our current funding level.
How big an improvement? This year we are receiving $7,066.61 per pupil.
Our student count figure is 734.38. 7,066.61 x 734.38 = $5,189,577.05.
At the 2011 funding level of $7,316, this would be: 7,316 x 734.38 = $5,372,724.08, for a difference of: $183,147.03.
$183,147 is a lot of money for our small district. Such an adjustment would still be behind the rise in our costs, but it would certainly be more helpful than what we are receiving this year. Had even moderate adjustments been made for inflation, say to perhaps the point where we would be receiving $7,500 per pupil, the math would look like this: 7,500 x 734.38 = $5,507,850, for a difference of $318,272.95.
As you can see, how the state funds per pupil amounts has a dramatic effect on our district. Again, $7,500 would not keep up with what inflation has been since 2011. Like any business our costs have gone up.
However, unlike a business, we do not have a way to change how we price school services. When faced with budget shortfalls our only option is to implement cutbacks to staff, services, and programs and/or spend down ever shrinking savings in district accounts.
I agree with concerned Iron Mountain staff members, parents, and Iron Mountain district leadership that restoring per pupil funds to at least the level they were at prior to cuts - with no strings attached - should be an essential part of our expectations for Lansing in the budget for the 2014-15 school year.
There are other things Lansing could do to ease pressure on costs for schools:
1) Require charter schools and their employees to participate in the retirement system. Because charter schools-which are state funded-do not participate in the state retirement program, they pull participants out of the program who would otherwise be contributing. This causes costs to rise for public school districts in order to replace the funds that would otherwise come from charter school employees. Besides, the playing field for charter and local public schools should be level. By not participating in the program charters have a much larger pot of money available in their general fund.
2) Stop raiding the K-12 fund to pay for costs elsewhere in the budget. K-12 funding is supposed to be protected in Michigan. Recent years have seen the state finding work-arounds for this protection in order to shift school funds elsewhere.
3) Use the much bandied about $1.3 billion budget surplus to fund increased per pupil funding and not to provide what would amount to a very minimal tax cut on an individual basis.
Schools throughout the state are cutting programs, having to stuff classrooms beyond reasonable capacity, and even insist that some students take core classes online in order to save money on staff. Today's children should expect the same level of programming most of us enjoyed as students. Though we have been able to do a good job of maintaining programs up until now, Norway is not immune to the cuts that will become necessary with continued underfunding from the state.
What you share with our elected representatives does matter to them.
Please trust me when I share that every elected official in the state, from either party, gets more than an earful from lobbyists in Lansing whose objectives may well not reflect the concerns of folks at home.
Silence can be mistaken for agreement or lack of interest. If you share my concern for the future of public schools in our area, please take a moment to share your concerns with our elected officials.
Representative McBroom's e-mail address is: EdMcBroom@house.mi.gov.
Senator Tom Casperson's e-mail address is: SenTCasperson@senatemichigan.gov.
Governor Snyder can be contacted at: somgovweb.state.mi.us/GovRelations/ShareOpinion.aspx.
School funding is a complicated process with a complex history in our state. If you have questions about school funding, please let me know and I will do my best to answer them.