Some Michigan Schools More Equal Than Others

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Monday, March 19, 2007BY JUDY PUTNAM

Ann Arbor News Bureau LANSING – A school funding crisis could soon pit school districts against one another as cash-starved schools hungrily eye their better-fed counterparts.

Michigan’s lowest-funded districts, at the state’s minimum foundation grant of $7,085 per student, say it’s unfair that some districts are getting $11,000 and $12,000 per student.

“It isn’t fair that a child in this community is expected to be educated for $7,000 when a child in (another) community is educated for $11,000,” said Theresa Herron, a parent of three children in the Manchester school district. Manchester receives $7,291 per student.

The debate is being fueled by a $377 million shortage in the school aid fund that threatens districts with $214-per-pupil cuts this year. Any cuts will have to be absorbed by districts now three-quarters through their fiscal years.

Saline Superintendent Beverley Geltner said the disparity must end. “The welfare of the entire state of Michigan … depends on educating all students to a very high level.”

Statewide, Oakland County’s Bloomfield Hills district gets the highest grant funding, at $12,339 per pupil. Locally, Ann Arbor schools receives the most, at $9,619 per pupil. All other local districts receive less than $8,000, with eight receiving the minimum grant of $7,085.

Paul Soma, chief financial officer for Traverse City schools, said he sees no justification for the disparity. Soma is a member of Citizens for Equity, the group leading the charge for more equitable school funding.

Some low-funded districts say they should be first in line when dollars become available and last in line when cuts are considered.

Ann Arbor Superintendent Todd Roberts objects to this method, saying that rising costs and fairly flat funding in recent years have spelled budget cuts in his district.

“Funding for districts ought to be equalized, but not at the expense of another district,” he said. But former school board member Kathy Griswold said Ann Arbor spends too much.

“It borders on criminal to spend less money in Willow Run or Ypsilanti,” Griswold said. “The public needs to be educated on how much we are spending.”

Dennis McComb, superintendent of the Milan school district, which receives the minimum grant, does not want Ann Arbor or other districts to be penalized. McComb said he believes in equal spending as a goal, but “it can’t be done overnight; it has to be done over time.”

More than 40 percent of the state’s nearly 1.7 million public school students are in districts receiving the minimum, according to the House Fiscal Agency. More than half of the state’s 774 districts and charter schools are at the minimum. Many of the highest-funded districts are concentrated in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

Spurred by Citizens for Equity, about 50 lower-funded districts have formed an informal network since January to lobby for funding changes, said Rick Terres, associate superintendent of Howell Public Schools. His district is at the minimum.

“If there are extra dollars available, I believe the lower-funded districts need further consideration at the first wave,” he said.

At the core of the problem is the complex funding of schools. Voters in 1994 approved Proposal A, popular with taxpayers because it capped increases in property taxes. It also switched the source of school funding from local property taxes to a state- and local-funded pool based on property taxes, income taxes and sales tax, among others.

One goal of Proposal A was to provide more equitable funding, and for about five years, the gap between the haves and have-nots shrank. In 1993-94, the gap was nearly fourfold, with the per-pupil amount ranging from $2,764 to $10,294, a $7,532 gap, according to the Senate Fiscal Agency.

Schools below a basic amount set annually were given double increases. By 1999-2000, all schools were at the basic foundation amount, now called the minimum, and the gap between the lowest-funded and highest-funded districts shrank to $5,454.

Since 2000, the gap has been slow to close, shrinking by an additional $223 per pupil.

At the other end of the spectrum, Bloomfield Hills, Ann Arbor and 50 other districts are in a special funding category called “hold harmless.” They levy additional property taxes to provide more than the current maximum foundation grant of $8,385. Those districts were grandfathered in under Proposal A – other districts don’t have the choice to levy additional mills unless it is on a countywide basis.

Rep. Kevin Elsenheimer, R-Bellaire, last month introduced a resolution that would put a constitutional amendment on the ballot asking to close the equity gap by 2018.

Elsenheimer rankled when he recently heard Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson call for Chinese language classes to be added to all Oakland County schools.

“Why is it that schools in some part of the state are adding things like Mandarin Chinese, when schools in rural parts of the state are having to cut, cut, cut, and are worried about even being able to offer athletics?” he said.

Brian Whiston, a lobbyist for Oakland County schools, which includes 12 hold harmless districts, said higher-funded schools could support that measure, if it is amended to specify that equity would not be achieved by taking from them, and that they, too, would enjoy increases. “The authors of Proposal A never wanted to bring top districts down,” he said.

House Education Committee chair Tim Melton, D-Auburn Hills, said Democrats will put forth their own equity solution this year.

Melton said that Republicans had plenty of time to fix the equity gap when they controlled the Legislature. The House switched party control in January.

Mike Pumford, a former lawmaker who now lobbies for Grand Rapids Public Schools and the Kent Intermediate School District, said the situation is ripe for a lawsuit.

“Every school district now must meet the same standards, and is held to the same level of accountability,” Pumford said. “They have to do the exact same thing, but the state is giving some districts $12,000 to $13,000 per pupil,” to do that.

Citizens for Equity can be found at http://www.citizensforequity.org.

©2007 Ann Arbor News© 2007 Michigan Live. All Rights Reserved.

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~ by Keith A. Owens on March 23, 2007.

2 Responses to “Some Michigan Schools More Equal Than Others”

  1. The way we fund schools is a travesty. Schools in already rich districts are receiving 2x or more money when they already have the easiest job. The law as written years ago provided a means for the gap to close but politicians tricked it out so thoroughly that Flint will never reach equity with Birmingham.

  2. Farlane,

    It really does need to be dramatically overhauled, no doubt. What people need to understand is that better education for all is to the benefit of all.

    Thanks for stopping by.

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