District leaders: equalized public funding, historic step towards equity – School News Network

Multiple districts – When Michigan voters passed the Proposition A school funding referendum in 1994, Dirk Weeldreyer was teaching social studies at Jenison High School. The least well-funded districts in the state raised about $ 2,700 per student; its highest, over $ 10,000.

Today, Weeldreyer is Acting Superintendent of Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, the poorest school district in Kent County. However, Godfrey-Lee now receives $ 8,700 in state base funding per student – the same amount as all other school districts in the state. It is thanks to a $ 17 billion school spending plan lawmakers approved in June that, for the first time, equalize per-student funding for all Michigan schools – a primary goal of Proposition A more than 25 years ago.

For Weeldreyer, that means about $ 1 million more for his students and teachers, and a sea change in funding the schools he and others have long worked for.

“It was a historic thing. We have been waiting for this day for a long time, ”said Weeldreyer, executive director of the School equity caucus, a group of about 200 school districts advocating for equitable funding for all Michigan schools. “Finally having him here is a big step forward.

“But we know we’re on a long journey,” he said. “We still have some way to go. ”

Much work remains to be done to give all students equitable support for other needs such as special education, transportation and facilities, agree Weeldreyer and other leaders.

Ron Koehler

“Equal funding is a laudable step,” said Ron Koehler, superintendent of Kent ISD’s 20 school districts. “Now is the time to allocate the funds equitably, giving English language learners and economically disadvantaged special education students the resources to help them master the core content all students need.” to succeed in school, in life and in their careers. ” Read his full statement here

Pandemic financing offers an opportunity

The 10% overall increase in funding for public schools has been somewhat overshadowed by the resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. Fueled by a shake of federal funds, it also dramatically increased dollars for support staff, mental health, and the Great Start Readiness program as well as the base per student allowance.

This allocation finally eliminates the per-student funding gap between minimum and maximum funding districts. This difference was $ 2,300, going from $ 4,200 to $ 6,500, in the first year of Proposal A, which shifted funding for schools from local property taxes to state income tax. He has shrunk over the years while the state has increased funding to the less well funded districts by twice as much as those at the top. (Less than 10% of districts still spend more than $ 10,000 per student because they were allowed by Proposition A to stay above the maximum by raising funds locally.)

“Proposal A was a big step. It took about 30 years, but it worked well. Now is the time for us to consider what is the next thing to bring more fairness. ‘

– Dirk Weeldreyer, Acting Director of Godfrey-Lee

This year’s increase in per-student funding, known as the foundation allowance, means an additional $ 589 per student for 15 of Kent ISD’s 20 school districts – “the biggest increase ever,” said Kevin Philipps, Kent ISD Deputy Superintendent for Administrative Services. .

The other five districts have increases ranging from $ 171 to $ 419. For example, a low-income neighborhood like Godfrey-Lee, which received $ 8,111 in 2020-2021, is now tied with better-off Forest Hills, which received $ 8,529 last year (see box).

Matt Wright was hired as a social worker at Godfrey-Lee Middle School thanks to an increase in per-student funding from the state (photo by Dianne Carroll Burdick)

For Godfrey-Lee, the extra million dollars will go mainly to restoring the teaching and staff positions cut over the years and filling vacancies. Six positions have already been added or restored, including a new college social worker, Matt Wright. He’s working with small groups and individual students to tackle the anxiety and “collective trauma” of the pandemic, as well as take a behavior problem-solving approach, he said.

“The more things we can do to keep kids in school, it can help close the gaps that we’re seeing in performance and achievement,” Wright said.

A mixed blessing for some

In Forest Hills, by contrast, the $ 171 increase simply allows schools to maintain spending after years of cost cuts, inadequate funding, and the state-imposed maximum per student cap.

When the district budget was passed in June, an increase of $ 150 per student was planned, so the extra $ 21 “is just extra money to make up for where we thought we would end up,” Julie said. Davis, Assistant District Superintendent for Finance and Operations. . What Forest Hills students and families will see as an equalization benefit isn’t a change, she said – which may not seem like a benefit, but it is, as reductions have been the norm for so long.

Forest Hills has long exceeded the base base allowance, but that has not increased with the rising costs of most aspects of operating a school district. Davis considers the equalizer “a good thing; it just took so long to get here.

“But now that we’re all on the same level, it’s a different conversation,” she added. “Now can we focus on what it really takes to fund our school system?” For so long it really burst with different studies and initiatives. We need to consider, as a state, what makes sense to fully fund our schools? ”

Unsecured future funding

It’s a question resonating with other districts as they update their spending decisions based on this fall’s enrollments. For public schools in Grand Rapids, the region’s largest district, the increased funding per student was about $ 7.5 million in additional state dollars based on expected enrollments. However, the increase was slashed by $ 65 per student due to additional funding in 2020-21 that was cut this year, CFO Larry Oberst said.

“It’s a tremendous accomplishment (for) a lot of people who lobbied for it. The key is going to be to keep it in place, to keep it going.

– Rockford Superintendent Michael Shibler

The increased funding will help the district deal with “wage pressures” in ongoing negotiations with all of its employee unions, Oberst said. It will also help fund special education services and the overall district budget, he added.

“Our budget for 2021-2022 has a forecast deficit of approximately $ 2.1 million. So we hope to reduce that to zero, ”he said, adding that they would change the budget in January.

Michael shibler

Fifteen miles north of Rockford, which is, like GRPS, a minimum fund district, the foundation’s increase brings in about $ 4.6 million. Much of this will be used to strengthen mental health services, reduce class sizes, and retain and attract staff such as bus drivers, paraprofessionals and catering workers, said Michael Cuneo, deputy superintendent of food services. finances.

Superintendent Michael Shibler welcomes the equalized funding as a milestone he has long pushed the state for – but he is aware that it could be withdrawn in the future.

“This has been one of my main priorities since being in education, which is 53 and a half years old,” said Shibler, noting that this was one of the main goals of forming the Friends of Kent County Schools 20 years ago. “It’s a tremendous accomplishment (for) a lot of people who lobbied for it. The key is going to be to keep it in place, to keep it going. “

Only an unlikely constitutional amendment like Proposition A could prevent a future legislature from undoing the equalization formula, he added. a key recommendation from a 2018 report on school funding.

Equality is not fairness

Returning to Godfrey-Lee, Acting Superintendent Weeldreyer also views Equalization with caution while highlighting the inequalities that still plague low-income neighborhoods like his. Equal funding per state student does not mean equity in the amount districts have to spend, he stresses.

For example, bond issues for capital improvement there, such as the $ 17.79 million voters approved last year to restore a collapsed part of the middle and high school, yield much less per raises only property-rich neighborhoods like Saugatuck and elsewhere, he noted. Yet Godfrey-Lee’s parents generously support his high tax rates, he said: “They do what they can with what they have.”

“Now that we’re all on the same level, the conversation is different. Now can we focus on what it really takes to fund our school system? “

– Julie Davis, Forest Hills Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations

The same inequalities apply to other costs such as transport, special education, and vocational and technical education, he adds. “Any tax tied to the value of the property will be inherently unfair. “

Having taken an important step, now is not the time to slack off on the long journey, he argues.

“Proposal A was a big step. It took about 30 years, but it worked well. He did his job. And now it’s time for us to consider what is the next thing to bring more equity.

Morgan Jarema and Phil de Haan contributed to this story

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