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School financing frustration

April 19, 2011
Daily Press

ESCANABA - A few days ago Escanaba Superintendent Burley Lemire wrote a Daily Press guest column titled "Snyder hurting Esky students." The headline was authored by the newspaper not Ms. Burley Lemire. The superintendent's tone was not so much an accusation against the governor, as suggested by the title, as it was an expression of frustration that is probably shared by her colleagues throughout the Upper Peninsula.

Government Snyder said there was there were sufficient reforms available, that if implemented by school districts, they would resolve their budget shortfalls.

He said that if school employees paid 20 percent of their insurance costs and school districts cut 10 percent of their non-instructional spending district budgets would be balanced.

Superintendent Burley Lemire applied the governor's 20/10 percent cuts to the Escanaba Public Schools budget. Those cuts would move Escanaba Schools' budget less than halfway towards balancing its budget this year.

The superintendent's frustration must have come from the governor's apparent misunderstanding of the problem while soft peddling it.

Left out of the governor's 20/10 solution was the requirements of childhood development and state requirements imposed upon school districts by the Michigan Merit Curriculum. The Merit Curriculum sets graduation requirements. Some requirements are difficult for all students to meet. For example, all students must pass Algebra 2. Districts burn resources teaching Algebra 2 to students that are not natural mathematicians and who will never need that particular skill.

The crux of the school financing crisis is Proposal A. In 1993 property rich school districts were able to spend twice as much on educating K-12 as rural districts found in places like the U.P. Detroit suburbs could offer special programs and extensive extracurricular activities.

In 1993 the legislature led by now Senator Stabenow and Governor Engler scrapped the funding mechanism for schools, local property taxes, and placed two proposals on the ballot for funding schools. One of the proposals, Proposal A, replaced local property taxes with a 33 percent increase in sales taxes to fund schools. After Proposal A passed the state and not local property taxes funded K-12 education.

Under Proposal A the state continued to pay rich districts the amount they paid to educate their children before Proposal A passed with a promise that the per pupil support throughout the state would equalize over time. In The last few years funding from the state has decreased.

Aside from inadequate support for K-12 education state policy impedes school districts in two other ways. First, the state budget is not final until Oct. 1 each year.

The state budget tells schools the amount the state will pay per student to each district. The catch is that districts must form their budgets by July 1, three months before the state tells school districts how much funding the state will provide.

Second, the state requires local district to spend a huge chunk of their budgets on pensions. Local districts do not negotiate pension policy. Pensions are controlled by the state. In the spring of the year districts are told the percentage of their payroll they will pay the pension fund in the coming fiscal year. As I recall nine years ago the state took about 12.5 percent. Over the years the number of employees have been reduced, but this year the state demands 25 percent, while state support of education plummets.

Despite promises the legislators has not passed a budget this spring allowing schools to plan their budgets in advance of their July 1st deadline.

Superintendent Burley Lemire's district is in better condition than many districts. The Detroit Free Press published the fund balances, a district's savings account at the end of the year. Escanaba's was a little less than 8 percent. Other districts have a whole lot less.

The governor will not face students, parents and staff who he has led to believe that there is a magic 20/10 fix, but school boards and administrators will. To walk in the shoes of school administrators state officials should sit with school boards at those local budget meetings and experience the multifaceted aspects of school funding.


EDITOR'S NOTE - Richard Clark, Escanaba, practices personal injury law throughout the Upper Peninsula. He can be reached at



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