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NCLB Outrages

School Cuts to Hurt Kids Most

Ohanian Comment: Although NCLB mentioned comes far down in this article, here we see the fallout. The media screams that public schools are terrible, parents move to charters, taking student money with them.

Don't you love this solution: Let educators be more creative about how they can spend their money.

As they head back to school, some students will be riding in older buses, using outdated computers or not getting drug-prevention lessons.

Reading teachers, special-education coordinators and custodians won't be returning to their jobs this week in many schools.

Still other districts are slashing budgets for extracurricular activities, and more students than ever are paying to play sports.

And the red ink continues to pour out of Michigan's school districts.

As many as 30 districts are out of savings and hovering near bankruptcy this year. Another 100 districts could be in that situation next year, said Tom White, executive director of the Michigan School Business Officials organization.

In Mt. Clemens, Superintendent T.C. Wallace said his district is counting on gaining 100 students to balance its budget this year. But a new charter school is opening up a quarter- mile from his office, and every student who leaves his district for the charter school will take state funding with him or her. And, Wallace said, with no savings, the district needs to cut another $1 million to balance the 2005-06 budget.

"The quality of the programs we're offering is impacted, there's no question about that," Wallace said. "We're hopefully trying to maintain a decent class size and our programs won't suffer, but should the cuts continue, districts such as ours will be in a deficit."

Students are coming back to school this fall after some of the toughest budget slashing educators have seen. This is the third year state funding for schools is not increasing. Meanwhile, expenses such as health and retirement benefits and energy costs continue to rise.

Pontiac schools laid off 125 employees. Trenton schools cut $250,000 from the maintenance budget. Roseville eliminated its adult-education program.

The bulk of the cuts are jobs, according to a survey, conducted by the MSBO. More than 80 percent of schools reported they will increase class sizes, about 70 percent won't purchase textbooks and half are eliminating extracurricular activities.

School officials said they are trying to balance their budgets without hurting kids in the classroom. But that's virtually impossible.

Cutting paraprofessionals results in students having less one-on-one time with teachers. Eliminating teaching positions through attrition can prevent teacher layoffs, but class sizes will likely increase. Cutting custodians takes its toll in the attitude of students in buildings that get less attention.

"Schools are near a point where they are going to have to spend all their fund equity," or savings, said Alexander Bailey, superintendent of the Oak Park School District. His district is using $3 million of its savings to avoid making major cuts in programs.

Some said school districts need to learn to live within their means and be more creative about stretching their dollars.

"There's never been a time in history where schools said, 'We now have enough money,' " said Joe Lehman, executive vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank based in Midland.

Whichever side is right about the future, the crisis is very real.

There's no question Michigan schools enjoyed years of funding increases before the state's economic downturn. But school officials said they used much of that money to add personnel and programs to keep up with increasing accountability mandates such as the state's annual report card and the federal No Child Left Behind law.

"We've been making great strides the past few years, reducing class size, adding supports for early reading. Those supports are not frills," said Margaret Trimmer-Hartley, spokeswoman for the Michigan Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

Yet those are the areas districts are cutting. A battle could form over Proposal A, the 1994 state law that changed the way schools are funded. Under Proposal A, schools went from relying on local property taxes to state taxes for funding.

Before Proposal A, schools could ask local voters whether they were willing to pay more property taxes when money was tight. They don't have that option under Proposal A.

Some educators are calling for a change in the law.

"Someone is going to close a school early. Someone is going to say we don't have enough money to do this, we are effectively bankrupt, unless the state provides more money," said David Plank, codirector of Michigan State University's Education Policy Center. Others are adamantly opposed to tampering with Proposal A.

"We absolutely do not need any additional tax increases or tampering with Proposal A," said state Rep. Brian Palmer, R-Romeo, who chairs the House Education Committee. "If we start going down that path of outrageously high property taxes again, we will further fuel the economic problems in Michigan."

His solution: Let educators be more creative about how they can spend their money. And, instead of passing all the money on to schools during the good times, have the state put money aside in a statewide rainy day fund. That plan has been proposed, but appears unlikely to become law, Palmer said.

Palmer also called for a review of school health insurance plans. Most school districts' health insurance plans are through the MEA's Michigan Education Special Services Association, or MESSA.

The union's health plan offers very complete coverage. But Palmer wants to see whether schools could get a better deal from other companies

Schools could also try to save money by outsourcing before making cuts that impact the classroom, the Mackinac Center's Lehman said.

"If a parent finds a school is going to cut teachers, the parent should tell the school not to cut a single teacher until they have solicited bids for busing, janitorial and food service," Lehman said.

Statewide, 117 of 517 districts responding to a Mackinac Center survey said they were contracting out for one or more services; 26 of those districts were in the tri-county area.

"There's nothing magical about contracting out, but if you never ask for competitive bids, you'll never know if you're paying too much," Lehman said.

Whatever school funding changes may eventually come out of Lansing, Oak Park's Bailey said school districts are now in a holding pattern.

"If the economy doesn't get better, we're going to have to cut people and have other major cuts," he said. "We're rolling the dice and hoping things get better."

Contact PEGGY WALSH-SARNECKI at 586-469-4681. Staff writer Melanie Scott contributed to this report.

— Peggy Walsh-Sarnecki
Detroit Free Press


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