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Increased costs, slow funding increases create tight budget

It’s a situation Forest Hills Public Schools Superintendent Dan Behm has had to explain to lawmakers: Even with a per-pupil foundation allowance above neighboring districts, costs in his are not keeping up with inflation.

While Forest Hills is considered one of the most affluent school districts in West Michigan, Behm said they still feel the budget pinch of a lower per-pupil allowance than the district received a decade ago.

See related stories on financial challenges of affluent districts:

Based on the funding formula developed under Proposal A, the 1994 law that changed how Michigan schools are funded, Forest Hills received $8,409 per pupil this school year compared to the minimum level of $7,871. But consider that 10 years ago, in 2008-09, the district received $8,462 per pupil — and that since then the cost of, well, everything has gone up.

‘If our goal at graduation is that every child leaves with a universal set of proficiencies and skills, then what we need in the system is the ability to customize and deploy resources that are responsive to each child.’ — Superintendent Dan Behm

Even though the district is at the high end of per-pupil funding, it doesn’t mean they have not had to make serious cuts, he said.

“(Lawmakers) would say ‘You get more money anyway with the higher foundation allowance.’ And I would tell them that we use that money for programs and services that all kids need.”

When inflation goes up even 1 percent for a budget the size of Forest Hills — $107 million — “that’s over a million dollars in new expenses, and so a million in new cuts every year,” Behm said.

“The cost of utilities has gone up, retirement has gone up, not to mention our own employees whose household expenses have gone up,” Behm said. “All of those things have required us to have to liquidate needed services just to cover the cost of inflation.”

Dan Behm

Cuts Over the Years

In Forest Hills, that’s evident in increased class sizes, which come when  teachers retire and their positions are not filled. The district once had a daytime custodian in every building; now custodians cover two schools.

There used to also be an aide in every kindergarten classroom to help those teachers with non-instructional tasks that, at that age, can take a large chunk of teachers’ time: tying shoes, getting coats on and off.

“That kids know the teacher can focus on them and their needs and not create a more anxious or rushed environment makes a huge difference,” Behm said. “We’ve historically been able to purchase some of these services I would wish for every child in this state, but we’ve also seen what has happened when you take those services away.”

And that gets at the equity factor. The School Finance Research Collaborative, a statewide study that examined school funding in Michigan, concludes that increased per-pupil funding is needed for all Michigan public schools. The study dsaid even more for students with special needs, who come from low-income families or are English-language learners. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposed budget refers to the study in calling for an increase in K-12 funding.

“If every child coming to school came from the same ‘inputs,’ our job would be easy,” Behm said. “But we know intuitively and from the evidence that every child is unique and comes to school with a unique set of needs. If our goal at graduation is that every child leaves with a universal set of proficiencies and skills, then what we need in the system is the ability to customize and deploy resources that are responsive to each child.”

Behm said Whitmer’s call for equity is “a step in the right direction. I think the proposal introduces this concept of customizing the services schools provide based upon what their needs are.

“It’s very difficult to bring about growth when children are seen as interchangeable widgets.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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