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Shirkey: Don’t cut Michigan schools budget despite $1.2 billion shortfall

There should be no budget cuts for Michigan schools for the current school year ending in June, despite devastating losses in the school aid fund caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey told Bridge Monday.

“In my opinion, schools should not have any reduction in their budgets for this school year. None. Zero,” Shirkey said.

Instead, the GOP leader said he will push federal officials to pony up the $1.2 billion shortfall. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has similarly pleaded for more federal support for schools and other state services.

With Shirkey’s support for maintaining school budget levels, immediate cuts to K-12 schools are unlikely.

Shirkey’s stance is likely to be greeted with sighs of relief from school officials who had been bracing for devastating budget cuts.

But it’s likely only a temporary reprieve from the budget ax — schools face large cuts in the 2020-21 state budget caused by a projected $1.1 billion shortfall in the School Aid Fund next year. That budget must be approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor by Oct. 1.

Whitmer spokesperson Chelsea Lewis said in an emailed statement that the administration was “glad to hear that Sen. Shirkey agrees with the governor that we will need additional flexibility and support from the federal government. 

“We hope Sen. Shirkey will ask President Trump to pass the HEROES Act when he's in Michigan this week, which will provide our state with additional flexibility and support to avoid deep and painful cuts to schools, public safety, and health care."

A bipartisan consensus that Michigan schools should be protected as much as possible from the fiscal impact of the coronavirus shutdown was a rare moment of agreement between Shirkey and Whitmer, who have sparred in  the past month over the governor’s go-it-alone handling of her emergency powers. 

Shirkey told Bridge that schools shouldn’t suffer from actions that were forced on them because of the pandemic. 

“The executive order (issued by Whitmer closing school buildings) prohibited them from making any kind of budget adjustments,” Shirkey said. “And number two, basically every school employee since schools shut down have been working on COVID-related activities in support of families and businesses.

“It would be completely illegitimate to affect their budget [this] year,” Shirkey said.

“We know next year’s budget is going to have a different effect but we know that going in, and we have time to plan and we spread it out over 12 months,” Shirkey said. “But I’m ready to roll my sleeves up and go to work to arm wrestle with the federal government.

“I believe we have a really rational argument that most of the expenses schools endured since they were told to shut down have been directly related to COVID,” Shirkey said. “So we should be able to use the CARES Act for this particular process.”

Shirkey said he hopes to coordinate a “presentation” to federal officials with Whitmer that argues that school costs since the Mid-March closure are COVID-related and thus eligible for pandemic relief funding.

While both leaders are looking to federal relief, Shirkey and Whitmer are taking different approaches. 

Shirkey said he believes $3.9 billion the state has already received in pandemic relief funding from the federal CARES Act can be used to fill the $1.2 billion school budget shortfall this year. 

“We’ll say, ‘Here’s our rationale and tell us if we’re wrong. And if they push back, then we contact our congresspeople,” Shirkey said.

The Whitmer administration has said the CARES Act does not give the state enough flexibility to divert $1.2 billion to schools, which is why she has urged Congress to pass another relief bill to provide money specifically for schools. 

Shirkey said he will work to build consensus on his position in the state House and Senate.

In response to Shirkey’s announcement, State Superintendent Michael Rice said, “We’re supportive of any federal funding for this year and next year to protect educational services for children. Given the budget challenges in Michigan as a result of the pandemic, we’re counting on Congress to support our children.”

Scott Menzel, superintendent of Washtenaw Intermediate School District, was relieved to hear Shirkey’s support of no budget cuts in the current year.

“Given that we are nearly through the current school year and have continued to pay our employees, the commitment of the Senate Majority leader to avoid K-12 cuts for this year is reassuring,” Menzel said. “This is welcome news at a time where schools have increased levels of concern related to the potential of a negative supplemental in the current fiscal year.”

Robert McCann, executive director of the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education, a statewide education and advocacy group, said Shirkey’s position was “a good start.”

“We appreciate his commitment for this year, but we need the same commitment for next year’s budget,” McCann said, “Particularly at a time when school costs are going to go up rather than down because of [expected] new guidelines to operate schools safely.”

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