Column: Schools can’t afford to wait as the Legislature drags its feet on the budget

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As schools throughout the metro Detroit area have begun to open their doors to students again, they’re doing so with an unusual and alarming amount of guesswork involved.

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

Instead of spending the summer months implementing their budget planning for the new year, including filling critically important teaching and support staff positions, school administrators were instead estimating — or often simply guessing — how much money their district will have available to pay for staff, supplies and every other operating cost throughout the school year.

It should go without saying that no responsible school administrator — or leader of any organization — should ever be making budget decisions based off guesswork. But it is the reality that every single school administrator in Michigan is currently being forced into because our state Legislature hasn’t done their constitutionally mandated job to pass a budget for our K-12 schools on time.

The lack of a state budget is already being felt in the hallways of every school in Michigan as the new year starts. Untold numbers of teaching and support staff positions have not been filled because of uncertain budgets, while other districts have chosen to fill positions anyway and hope that whatever budget the Legislature may ultimately pass will cover their costs.

Lack of state budget progress rankles Michigan school leaders

Should budgets fail to come together soon, or worse, come together without the investments our schools need, then these administrators who have made every effort to responsibly open their schools this year will be forced to rearrange services, utilize needed reserves, or even possibly layoff teachers and other staff in the middle of the school year. 

We can only imagine the impact the students would feel from having their teachers taken away from them because someone in Lansing decided they weren’t worth paying for.

As educators, we want to ensure our students receive every opportunity to succeed both in and out of the classroom. We teach students to plan ahead and make responsible decisions for themselves and their classmates. Unfortunately, the Legislature has done neither.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer first introduced her proposed budget for Michigan’s K-12 schools back in March. At the time, there was an overwhelming feeling of optimism among educators — not simply because it was a budget plan that invested in our schools once again, but because it would invest those dollars in a way that transforms how we can educate our students for the better.

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Instead of putting money into an outdated one-size-fits-all funding model, Whitmer’s plan called for a weighted funding formula that took into account the unique needs and costs for every school, classroom and student in Michigan and funded them accordingly. 

It would, at long last, truly provide funding for districts to pay for special education, reading programs, English language learning and other programs that our current funding method doesn’t adequately support.

The governor’s plan, of course, relied on new revenues for both schools and roads that she proposed to raise through a higher gas tax. While the GOP leadership in the state House and Senate balked at her approach, they have failed to produce any alternatives of their own in the almost six months since then.

Make no mistake, this current Legislature isn’t the one that created the financial position we are in where our schools and our roads have been underfunded, but it has the opportunity to be the one to fix it. 

Budget talks breaking down between Whitmer, GOP leaders

The longer the Legislature waits to finally pass this overdue budget, the worse the impact will be on our schools. Whitmer put a bold plan on the table that lives up to her promise to reinvest in Michigan once again. The Legislature must now act.

We simply cannot afford to wait.

Wanda Cook-Robinson
Dr. Wanda Cook-Robinson is a lifelong educator who has been Superintendent of Oakland Schools since 2015. In 1992, she co-founded, and still continues to serve on the board of, the Minority Women’s Network which supports women and educators of color across the county returning to school to complete their doctoral degrees. Dr. Cook-Robinson holds a Ph.D. in Instructional Technology and an Ed.S. in Educational Leadership from Wayne State University, a Master’s Degree in Curriculum Development and Supervision from the University of Michigan, and a Bachelor’s Degree in Special Education from Michigan State University.
Randy Liepa
Dr. Randy Liepa has been the Superintendent of Wayne RESA since 2015 and was formerly the Superintendent of the Livonia Public Schools from 2003 to 2015. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from Michigan State University, an Educational Specialist and Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership from Wayne State University, and a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Hillsdale College.
Mike DeVault
Mike DeVault has served as Superintendent of Macomb Intermediate School District since 1993. Following his service in the military, DeVault started his career as a teacher and coach in the Port Huron Area. He received his bachelor’s degree in business and master’s degree in education from Western Michigan University.

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