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Michigan school leaders: We need answers from Lansing now to open

Frustrated by inaction in Lansing and with the opening of school just weeks away, Michigan education leaders Thursday gave legislators an ultimatum: Cut a deal with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to make schools safe and financially sound during the pandemic, or we’ll ask the governor to take action on her own.

Four state education associations penned a group statement aimed at Michigan’s Republican legislative leaders Thursday, expressing a growing anxiety in schools across the state over still-undetermined safety and attendance protocols and uncertain budgets.

“Staff at our … districts and individual school buildings across the state are still hard at work every day making plans to continue the essential service of educating our 1.5 million students, and they need answers and direction,” the letter said. “Planning for the fall is already difficult enough in these unprecedented times, but without a budget nor any clear idea of how many pupils will be enrolled sets school districts up for failure.”

The Senate was expected to take up a House-passed package of bills laying out how schools can reopen during the pandemic this week. But both chambers, which are led by Republicans, were sent home after one senator tested positive for the coronavirus.

While negotiations between GOP leaders and Whitmer continue, no action will be taken until at least next week.

School districts face a state-mandated deadline of Aug. 15 to develop reopening plans. That’s difficult when it’s still unclear whether the state will require school districts to provide an option of face-to-face instruction (a current provision in one of the GOP bills), or how schools will be funded if most or all of their students are homebound in September like they were this spring.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, could not be reached for comment.

The statement, sent by the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators, the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators, the Michigan Association of School Boards and the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, asked the Legislature for the following:

  • State per-pupil funding for school districts based on last year’s enrollment figures.
  • To revise downward or eliminate the current 75-percent attendance threshold for school days to count as a day of instruction.
  • Allow school districts to use “nontraditional instructional methods,” such as remote learning, to continue education in case schools aren’t deemed safe.

Peter Spadafore, deputy executive director for external relations at the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, said schools are running out of time to make decisions. “They need answers now – yesterday” Spadafore said. “We’re building an airplane while we’re flying and we have no idea on our budget. We need that guidance.”

Spadafore said the education associations prefer an agreement worked out between the Legislature and the governor, “because that means all parties agree on it and it’s long term.” 

If the sides aren’t able to reach an agreement, the education associations will ask Whitmer for an executive order that resolves attendance and funding issues, or request State Superintendent Michael Rice to adjust pupil attendance accounting rules on his own, according to the statement.

Spadafore said he remains hopeful a deal between GOP legislative leaders and the Democratic governor can be reached.

“Even if we had a deal announced [and not yet signed], we could articulate ]that deal] to our membership, that would provide certainty,” Spadafore said. “Our plans are due on the 15th. Something has to give.”

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