In the past couple of weeks, many of us have learned the sad news that the Buena Vista School District had to close their doors early because they ran out of money to make payroll. The closing left students, parents and educators scrambling to find a way to ensure the Buena Vista students could complete their school year and high school seniors could graduate.
On the heels of this disturbing news, we also learned that the Pontiac School District was in jeopardy of not making payroll and they too were facing the possibility of having to close their doors early.
We’ve heard other dire news this past year concerning the lack of financial stability of school districts. At the end of Fiscal Year 2012, the Michigan Department of Education identified 49 Michigan public school districts and public school academies in a deficit position. Several of these “deficit districts” are working diligently on deficit elimination plans, but not without making dramatic cuts to core programs that have been valued by students and parents alike.
Further, there are many more districts that are bordering on becoming deficit districts simply because they have exhausted all avenues for reducing expenditures and are now forced to eat their way through their savings.
To further add to this dismal picture, the state has three districts that have been taken over by an emergency manager, and unfortunately it appears more districts will follow.
If I lived outside this state and received the above information about the state of public schools in Michigan, I would immediately conclude that there is a systemic problem with how schools are being funded. It’s easy to blame a district’s financial problems on poor budget management, but can we honestly believe that all these districts (and the number is growing rapidly) have mismanaged their finances?
In a recent public letter to Governor Snyder, David Arsen, MSU professor and a school finance specialist, stated “between 2002 and 2011, real pupil funding of Michigan’s public schools fell by $2,643 or 24.5 percent.” Further exacerbating the problem has been a steady decline of student enrollment in many public school districts. Are we really talking about financial mismanagement, or is this predominantly a case of a steady disinvestment in public education?
Back in 1993, when the Kalkaska School District closed their doors early because they ran out of money, Governor Engler and the Legislature at that time recognized the need to re-examine how schools are funded and in a bi-partisan fashion, created Proposal A as a new funding structure for schools. Proposal A worked well for districts for several years, but that’s not the case presently.
We’re long overdue for the legislature to once again examine how schools are funded. Many school boards and superintendents have reached the limit of what they can cut without causing great harm to the quality of education they provide their students.
If we all believe that it is our moral imperative to give every child in Michigan a great education, then it’s time to walk the talk and re-visit how we fund education.
We owe it to the students and to the future of Michigan.
By MASB Executive Director Kathy Hayes