Lack of state budget progress rankles Michigan school leaders

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Walled Lake Consolidated Schools began classes on Tuesday. So did East Lansing Public Schools, where Gov. Gretchen Whitmer sends her teenage children. 

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Each of those districts, along with other public schools around the state are beginning the 2019-20 school year without knowing how much money they’ll have, because the GOP-led Legislature and Whitmer have not yet agreed to a Fiscal Year 2020 budget for the state. The state budget deadline is Sept. 30.

District superintendents from around the state say that’s created significant uncertainty.

“Not having a budget in place really causes issues for us,” Ken Gutman, superintendent in Walled Lake in Oakland County, told reporters during a press call on Tuesday. “Our students started today … and I have no idea what kind of resources I have to support them or what I might have to do.” 

Gutman and other superintendents said they’re exploring the possibility of layoffs, using existing, albeit scarce funds already on hand as a way of funding operations, and cutting various programs. 

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“We’re still negotiating with our teacher’s union, so we’re negotiating without knowing how much money we have, which really does tie the hands of both sides,” Gutman said. 

Whitmer and Republican leaders remain at an impasse over finalizing a budget deal and have just more than 30 days to reach a consensus before a partial government shutdown would begin at midnight Oct. 1. 

Whitmer has spent much of the last two months bashing the Legislature’s decision to take a traditional summer break — which lawmakers are only just returning from — before having a budget completed. For the last eight years, as Republicans completely controlled Lansing, budgets were done by June ahead of the break. 

Speaking with reporters in Detroit on Tuesday, Whitmer demurred when asked whether she believes GOP legislative leadership is negotiating in good faith or just trying to run out the clock toward a shutdown in order to secure last-minute concessions. 

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“I introduced a budget six months ago. Six months ago,” Whitmer said. “This is the first time in nine years that we don’t have a budget done before the Legislature took a summer break. My kids started school in East Lansing. This is a dire situation for school districts and for municipalities. Without any meaningful alternative put on the table, I think you could draw political conclusions. I’m working day and night to get this done.”

Whitmer’s office has announced a Wednesday news conference in Lansing to offer an update on the state budget. 

While the House, Senate and Whitmer have different plans for education spending, it’s road funding that appears to be the main sticking point. The governor has proposed a 45-cent gas tax hike to raise $2.5 billion for roads, something state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) have firmly rejected. 

But infrastructure spending also is intertwined with education, with a significant amount of revenue from gasoline taxes going toward schools. Whitmer said Tuesday she rejected GOP road funding proposals last week due to their removal of sales tax on gas, which she said made for a loss of about $400 in per-pupil education funding statewide. 

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The GOP recommendations have not been made public, however, and spokespeople for Shirkey and Chatfield have denied that their proposals harm schools. 

State Rep. Jason Wentworth (R-Clare) today hit Whitmer for the gas tax and said Republicans could just pass a proposal “without her.”

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“Over the summer, Michigan lawmakers presented the governor with several different proposals. While she’s clung to her $2.5 billion tax hike for Michigan drivers, we have met with her on these plans to engage her feedback and support. The fact is, we could move forward with a proposal without her, but we are not because of our commitment to a bipartisan process,” Wentworth said.

The governor could, of course, veto any GOP-passed plan.

In terms of overall recommended appropriations for the state’s roughly $15 billion School Aid Fund for K-12 schools, there’s a roughly $300 million difference between the governor’s proposal and the state House has passed. 

But educators say that’s a big difference and they prefer the governor’s recommendation because it puts a greater emphasis on funding for different types of education, rather than a “one-size-fits-all” approach they say has been the status quo for too long. 

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“The difference between the House budget and the governor’s proposed budget are significant,” said Randy Liepa, superintendent of the Wayne Regional Educational Service Agencies (RESA). 

“We see a rather significant difference [and] it starts to move us toward that first step where we need to go in the state of Michigan,” Liepa said on Tuesday. “It’s not about what we’ve done every year and looking at what the school aid budget has and divvying it up based on the whims of that particular year. But [the governor’s proposal] has a specific long-term plan on how we’re going to address that we don’t have the resources to meet the needs of individual students.”

Advance reporter Ken Coleman contributed to this report.

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