Superintendent Mike Weiler says he wants to provide the best programs and opportunities he can for the 1,340 students of Kent City Community Schools, the smallest school district in Kent County. But he looks back at years of stagnant state funding, requiring cuts of counselors, librarians, music and art, and oversees a teaching staff that has received no pay increases in four of his six years there.
Those are among the many reasons he hopes voters will approve a countywide millage request May 2 that would add $284,014 to his strapped budget, yielding $211 for each student.
“Certainly the Kent City school district is not flush with resources,” Weiler said. “For us, $211 per kid is a big deal.
Enhancing Local Funding
On May 2, voters will be asked to approve a tax increase to provide funding for all 20 school districts within the Kent ISD. Details:
It would also be a big deal for the 19 other school districts that would receive funding increases under the enhancement millage. The Kent ISD board on Monday, Jan. 16 authorized the request, which if approved would raise over $19.9 million next year with a 0.9-mill, 10-year tax increase. The funds would be divvied up to all 20 districts at $211 per student, supporting classroom resources and other needs for the Kent ISD’s 94,000-plus students.
It’s the first time Kent ISD has asked for a districtwide enhancement millage, which intermediate districts were authorized to do under 1994’s Proposal A that fundamentally changed school funding in Michigan. Local districts have been unable to ask for operational millage increases since then. Officials say it’s time Kent ISD step in to help them cope with rising costs and flat funding.
“The bottom line is the revenue has not kept pace,” said Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Caniff, referring to the state per-pupil aid on which local districts rely. “We’re grateful for what we’ve been given from Lansing. At the same time, it hasn’t been enough.
“Our districts can’t continue on this path, they just can’t.”
No Movement on Revenue Side
Caniff stresses the Kent ISD does not want to overreach with its request. But long-term financial trends, and projections for coming years, make the request imperative for schools to maintain programs and fund facilities, he says.
State per-pupil funding has fallen further and further behind the cost of living since the 2008 great recession (see chart). Most districts receive $7,511 per student, which Weiler said is just $195 more than they received in 2009. A finance study last year said districts need $1,156 more per pupil to achieve state proficiency goals, and even more for at-risk and English-language learners.
Since the recession, local districts have had very tight belts — spending increased an average of 0.6 percent per year, revenues by 0.4 percent — but inflation has risen by 1.9 percent, said Mike Hagerty, Kent ISD assistant superintendent. Despite sharing services and other efficiencies, districts have had to dig ever deeper into their reserve funds. Kent City’s is the lowest at a little over 3 percent of its $14 million budget, putting it on a state watch list.
And while several districts have won voter approval of major bond issues, those can only pay for capital improvements like buildings and technology, Caniff points out. By law, the only way schools can get more money for instructional expenses is through an intermediate district enhancement millage.
The alternative? Most likely fewer teachers and bigger class sizes, since most everything else has been cut, Caniff said.
“Something has to happen on the revenue side of the ledger,” said Caniff, adding voters have been generous with bond increases. “On the expenditure side, there’s no more tools left in the tool cart. If there was anything that could be reduced or cut, it probably happened a long time ago.”
Outlook Not Good
The perceived need for the millage was buttressed by a report written for the Kent ISD superintendents, projecting what school districts can expect financially in the yearsahead. Local school board members were to be briefed on the study on Wednesday, Jan. 18.
For educators, it’s not a pretty picture.
Prepared by Mitch Bean, cofounder of Great Lakes Economic Consulting, the paper forecasts “dramatically” reduced state revenue in coming years, requiring either revenue increases or sharp cuts in state services. That’s as a result of modest economic growth coupled with already enacted tax cuts, including a big increase in business tax cuts and credits, and income-tax allocations and possible “devastating” automatic rollbacks tied to a transportation spending package passed in November 2015.
“More money will go to transportation – but the rest of state government will be in a permanent state of recession,” Bean’s report states.
Further, more money formerly used only for K-12 schools is now funding higher education, Bean notes. Meanwhile, revenue for state services as a percentage of total personal income has dropped drastically, meaning relative to the economy “state government is about $10 billion smaller than it was in 2000,” Bean said. “How much smaller are you going to get?”
Unless legislators make funding schools more of a priority, he said, even smaller.
“A lot of people argue they’re underfunded,” Bean said in an interview. “But you’re going against an ideology that says government is out of control, bloated. Waste, fraud and abuse (reductions) will take care of everything. How long are you going to make that argument?”
No New Taxes at What Cost?
Back in Kent City, a rural district at the northern edge of Kent County, Superintendent Weiler hopes taxpayers countywide see the needs in schools like his and elsewhere. Those include replacing 13-year-old buses at $85,000 a pop, higher utility costs and services like snow removal.
But like everywhere else, the biggest cost is people. Negotiations continue with teachers working from a two-year-old contract while paying higher health insurance and retirement costs. “They are something less than pleased,” he noted drily. “None of us are happy.”
At least one taxpayer group is not happy about the millage request and vows to oppose it. Weiler said he understands why people don’t want to pay more taxes. But he adds this is the first time in 15 years his district’s voters have been asked for more taxes to fund Kent City schools. To help support students’ education in early literacy, math and other areas, he hopes voters also understand why they’re being asked now.
“I’ve never been of the opinion that throwing more money at the schools is a panacea for improvement,” Weiler said. “But there are times when additional resources are a necessity in order for schools to function at the level they’re trying to function.”