Schools to Lawmakers: Hands Off K-12 Funding

Proposal 1 Defeat Shouldn’t Mean Classroom Cuts to Pay for Roads

Christie Ramsey, shown here with children Stone and Abigail, doesn’t want legislators raiding school funding to fix roads

Christie Ramsey is disappointed Proposal 1 did not pass. But whatever lawmakers do now, she said, they had better not touch her children’s schools.

“At this point, all parents across the state have to rally and say, OK, Proposal 1 didn’t pass,” said Ramsey, a Rockford parent and leader of a grassroots advocacy group. “But we have to make it very clear to our elected officials they have to find another way. They cannot cut our schools in order to fix our roads.”

In the wake of Tuesday’s resounding defeat of the complex ballot proposal, Ramsey and other public-school advocates worry state legislators will raid K-12 funding to pay for better roads. They argue that would be the wrong takeaway from the proposal’s defeat by 80 percent of Michigan voters.

“Our hope is that the Legislature and those in Lansing will now pursue a solution that will not take money from our schools to pay for roads,” said Kevin Konarska, superintendent of the Kent ISD serving 20 school districts. “The message (of) ‘don’t fix our roads on the back of schools’ will be one that will be clearly communicated across the state.”

Meanwhile, those who transport students to school on buses say the roads need to be fixed — and fast – now that Proposal 1 is history.

“It’s disappointing in the fact that the road repairs are just pushed down the road,” said Carol Hamilton, transportation supervisor for Lowell Area Schools. “That just makes you wonder when they’re going to come up with a solution – get the job of fixing the roads done. That’s what needs to happen.”

Don’t Get Wrong Message from Vote

Though hardly shocked by the proposal’s defeat, school officials say the important thing now is for legislators not to misinterpret the results as they go about finding a fix for roads.

Grand Rapids Public Schools spokesman John Helmholdt said the outcome came as little surprise, given polling data before the election showing the extent of opposition. He expressed hope that legislators won’t misread the outcome.

“Everyone knew it wasn’t a great solution to begin with,” Helmholdt said. “Our greatest concern now is that the legislative solution not be put on the backs of the schools or municipalities. This was a referendum on the complexity of the proposal, not a referendum against investing in fixing our roads and protecting our schools and municipalities.”

‘I have no appetite to hammer on public education.’ — State Rep. Robert VerHeulen

Indeed, in a poll by EPIC/MRA just before the election, 88 percent of respondents said there should be no further cuts to schools in order to pay for road repairs, noted Ron Koehler, assistant superintendent of the Kent ISD. Two-thirds of them said they would be willing to pay a 1 cent sales-tax increase if that went exclusively to roads, Koehler wrote in a blog post for School News Network.

“We want more orange barrels, not more children crammed into classrooms,” Koehler wrote.

Konarska said the proposal’s complexity was a big reason it failed, and it’s now up to lawmakers to come up with a better way.

“I think the Legislature has other options to consider in raising the revenue to properly fund schools and to repair the roads. It’s their job to consider those options and make the decisions necessary to see both done properly.”

Legislator Expects Quick Action

State Rep. Robert VerHeulen, R-Walker, said he hears that message loud and clear. He insisted he doesn’t want a road fix to come at the expense of schools, and believes other legislators don’t either.

“I have no appetite to hammer on public education, and based on what I’m hearing about my colleagues’ conversations with constituents, others in Lansing don’t either,” VerHeulen said the day after the election. “I’m optimistic because I was in Lansing this morning and my colleagues are saying let’s roll up our sleeves and get this done.”

‘They cannot cut our schools in order to fix our roads.’ — Christie Ramsey, parent

He added that he believes House members will fashion an alternate proposal in the next few weeks.

“We in the House are going to put something together very quickly,” VerHeulen said. “Based on the polling data, we believed that this would go down and it’s incumbent on us to do something. I don’t view this as the voters saying they don’t want to fix the roads, they just didn’t like this particular methodology.”

For transportation supervisors like Hamilton, the fix can’t come fast enough. Potholes and bad pavement on her drivers’ 1,200 miles of routes around Lowell slow travel time for students and inflict wear and tear on the district’s 30 buses, she said. That increases expenses for repair and time on the road for drivers.

“I’d like to see our politicians in Lansing come to an agreement,” Hamilton said. “If that means an increase in tax, so be it. Until they find another way, our roads just keep getting worse and worse.”

State Rep. Robert VerHeulen
State Rep. Robert VerHeulen

Bad Roads Take Toll on Buses

Byron Center Public Schools Director of Transportation Doug Gallup thinks about how road conditions affect students every day. He is waiting to see how legislators respond to Proposal 1’s failure.

“I drive the roads before school starts each day to make sure they’re safe for our district,” Gallup said. “I have personally had to repair two bent rims and three tires because of the conditions of our failing roads.”

Gallup worked for the Illinois Department of Transportation for 17 years. Now, maintaining the Byron Center bus fleet and keeping students and drivers safe are his priorities, in a region where punishing winters cause major road damage.

“The roads will not repair themselves,” he said. “To coin an old phrase, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The same could be said of classrooms, in the view of parent activist Christie Ramsey. The co-chairwoman of Friends of Kent County Schools said she was “really surprised” by how badly Proposal 1 failed. But having sat through three presentations to understand its many moving parts, she understands why many voters were confused.

The proposal would have raised about $2.1 billion, including nearly $300 million for the School Aid Fund and $1.2 billion for roads. There’s no good way the state can foot that road bill by cutting other expenses, she said.

“You can’t realistically cut a billion dollars without decimating public education and some of our community services,” said Ramsey, who has three children in Rockford Public Schools. “As a parent, it’s pretty scary thinking how we’re going to take care of this.

“We definitely need to fix our roads, but we don’t want to do it at the expense of our children’s education.”

CONNECT

Don’t Increase Class Sizes to Pave Potholes

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here