All districts — Funding priorities for K-12 education announced recently by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer drew applause in West Michigan.
Thanks to an estimated $3.5 billion budget surplus, Whitmer said the state now has an unprecedented opportunity to make much-needed, major investments in its schools and teachers.
“With the resources we have available to us thanks to federal aid and a state surplus, we can make lasting, transformative investments in our kids and schools that will have positive impacts for generations,” she said in a May 27 press conference.
Her Proposed School Aid Fund Spending Framework — which will still need legislative approval if it’s to be implemented — includes many items local districts agreed have been a long time coming.
That includes a $262 million investment in lower-funded districts that will close the funding gap between schools in lower- and higher-income communities, something that goes back almost 30 years as part of Proposal A in 1994.
Craig Hoekstra, superintendent of Wyoming Public Schools, cheered the entire proposal but especially the $262 million toward the funding gap.
“One’s zip code should not determine who gets what,” he noted.
Hoekstra also applauded the proposed increase in the foundation allowance, the money per student that the state Legislature guarantees each district will receive. If approved it would go up by 4 percent, a $402 million investment, guaranteeing all schools in the state would get $8,692 in base per-student aid. Currently Wyoming receives the minimum allotment, which was $8,111 in 2020-21.
Help for Stabilizing Enrollment
The governor’s proposal also provides $350 million to stabilize enrollment over two years for districts after COVID-related unpredictability and pupil losses. That includes $200 million to pay districts for 70% of lost enrollment between fiscal years 2021 and 2022, and $150 million for FY23 for the same purpose.
Grand Rapids Public Schools spokesperson John Helmholdt said that the $350 million in enrollment stabilization is a welcome lifeline for districts coming out of COVID. At GRPS, he said, the pandemic contributed to one of the largest student enrollment declines in the last 15 years.
He also praised the $262 million for closing the funding gap as a “solid starting point” but said there is more work to do in Michigan to meet the needs of all students, particularly the highest-poverty, highest-need students.
In Cedar Springs, the response was also positive.
Chris LaHaie, the district’s chief financial officer, said the governor’s proposed budget represents “an extremely impressive step.”
He added: “The elimination of the funding gap between minimum foundation districts, such as Cedar Springs Public Schools and others around the state, would provide us with significant dollars to provide adequate educational services for our students.”
Other significant parts of the framework include:
- $500 million for districts to hire and retain more educators, psychologists, social workers, counselors and nurses, and provide student loan debt relief for mental and physical health professionals who work in high-need districts
- $500 million for school infrastructure
- $100 million to hire more guidance and career counselors
- $50 million for ongoing student mental health programs
Plenty of Positive Uses for Money
All told there is $1.7 billion in the plan in one-time funding and another $900 million for ongoing investments in the proposed framework.
Locally, school officials are hoping for a state budget passage soon so they can plan well for the 2021-22 school year.
Though districts are being necessarily cautious as they consider the possible funds in the proposed budget, Cedar Springs, Grand Rapids and Wyoming all said there would be plenty of positive ways to use the money in their respective districts.
For Cedar Springs, which became a one-to-one technology district this school year, officials said the possible dollars would allow them to build a comprehensive technology plan to ensure they can replenish and repair students’ devices for years to come. The district also would enhance its existing staff of psychologists, social workers, and counselors, and increase student support through additional child-life interventionists, behavior support specialists and more.
Similarly, Hoekstra said Wyoming is analyzing data concerning wrap-around services already offered to determine what they could build on in the areas of social and emotional health, wellness and school climate. The district also would look at adding more English language-learner support and expanding its after-school programming.
And in Grand Rapids, Helmholdt said that while the district is still in the process of finalizing its plans, including a required public hearing, it is looking to prioritize academic, social, emotional and mental health support for students; technology, HVAC and facility improvements; and much more.
Certainty Needed to Plan Ahead
GRPS Superintendent Leadriane Roby said the key now is for the Legislature to work with Governor Whitmer to pass a budget for schools as soon as possible.
“With one school year coming to a close, the beginning of next school year is right around the corner,” she said. “We need certainty as we plan ahead.”
Chris Glass, director of legislative affairs for Kent ISD, thinks Roby and other local superintendents will get their wish. He expects the budget to be done by July 1 as negotiations ramp up over the next couple of weeks between the state House, the Senate and the governor’s office.
“Each chamber, including the governor’s office, has its own priorities,” he said. “They have to find common ground between those differences.”
He noted that Republicans likely will press on paying down unfunded liabilities in the pension system as part of their current negotiations. However, he added there is lots of common ground and agreement in Lansing when it comes to the proposed framework, including that the foundation allowance should be at a base level equal for all districts.
“For decades we have been closing the gap,” he said. “Now we have the resources to really finish the job.”
Beth Heinen Bell and Erin Albanese contributed to this story