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No band, buses or sports? Budget cuts could cripple Michigan schools

Michigan schools will face devastating budget cuts in the coming school year unless the federal government pitches in to help offset revenue losses from the coronavirus pandemic, State Superintendent Michael Rice said Thursday.

Michigan schools face a $2.39 billion decline in the school aid fund over the next year and a half because of a plummet in state tax revenue attributed to the state lockdown and high unemployment. 

Next year alone, schools face a $1 billion shortfall, which is the equivalent of a $685 slash in per-student funding. That’s an 8.4 percent cut from the $8,111 per student most schools received from the state in the 2019-20 school year.

The biggest previous cut in per-student funding was $470, in 2011.

School officials around the state say the budget shortfall could be catastrophic absent federal intervention, with discussions of cuts that likely will include layoffs, pay decreases and elimination of some student programs.

Overall, Michigan tax revenues are forecast to drop $6.2 billion in the next two years, prompting state officials from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to school officials to turn to the U.S. government for help.

In the past two week,s school leaders have turned to social media and virtual town halls to ask families to lobby congressional representatives for an education bailout.

Before Thursday, Rice had not called a press conference in the more than 10 months he’d held the state’s top school post. Rice used his first press conference to make a case for federal help.

“Even a billion dollar cut would be an enormous cut for our schools and our children,” Rice said. “We underfund public education in Michigan now. And now we’re staring at the possibility of additional cuts. It’s unacceptable.

“No child asks to grow up during a pandemic, and no child’s education should be harmed because they’re growing up in a pandemic,” Rice said.

With budgets for the 2020-21 school year required by July 1, school districts across the state are struggling to make draconian cuts.

A survey of Upper Peninsula superintendents, conducted this week by Norway-Vulcan Superintendent Lou Steigerwald, found districts considering layoffs and the elimination of high school elective classes, extracurricular activities and sports.

Kevin Polston, superintendent of Godfrey-Lee Public Schools near Grand Rapids, said the impact of large budget cuts on Michigan schools would be “dire.”

Polston’s district this week sent layoff notices to all its support staff — secretaries, bus drivers and paraprofessionals who help out in classrooms.

“Our hope is we can call them all back, and we know we’ll call some back, but there’s so much uncertainty now,” Polston said. “It feels like we’re driving blind at this point. The impact (on Michigan schools) is far greater than any financial crisis we’ve faced in this generation.”

For Novi Public Schools in Oakland County, a $700 per-pupil cut in state funding is the equivalent of the pay and benefits for 67 teachers, said R.J. Webber, assistant superintendent of academic services.

Districts are anticipating increased costs to make schools safe during the pandemic, such as boosting sanitation, possible remote learning and staggered schedules, while also building budgets that assume large cuts, Webber said.

“If you look at things that make schools part of the community – band, orchestra, athletics – all those things are on the table,” Webber said. “A kindergarten class with 23 kids last year could be faced with 33 kids.

“Some people who have never been educators, they think we’re crying wolf,” Webber said. “But you’re talking about the hollowing out of schools.”

Randy Liepa, superintendent of Wayne Intermediate School District, called a $700 per pupil cut “unfathomable.”

Layoffs would be inevitable at the worst possible time — when class sizes need to be reduced to allow for social distancing, Liepa said. “I guess you could completely stop [school bus] transportation,” Liepa said.

“Do the math: We need help from the feds on this.”

School officials are hoping Congress passes a fourth coronavirus stimulus bill that includes billions of dollars for schools across the U.S.

The likelihood of that federal aid is uncertain.

“It’s a fraught moment,” Rice said. “It’s a moment when all of us need to make clear to Washington that they need to produce, and they need to work hard and make sure children aren’t harmed because they happened to be growing up in a pandemic.”

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