House proposal a 'manufactured crisis'?

MICHIGAN – Just before the Christmas holiday, the State House of Representatives approved a 3.5 percent per student cut in funding for K-12 schools and a 22 percent reduction in funding for public universities in its budget proposal. The proposal passed 57-53.

The budget delivers the biggest cut to education funding in history, leaving local educators disappointed.

“They’re manufacturing a crisis that doesn’t exist,” said Curt Finch, superintendent of the Mecosta-Osceola Intermediate School District. “We can understand the concept of ‘shared sacrifice,’ but not putting a chainsaw to K-12 funding.”

The School Aid Fund, which has funded only K-12 education in the past, would have a surplus of about $500 million for the upcoming fiscal year if $900 million was not being shifted to fund universities and community colleges. Instead, districts that have already been cutting costs for years are forced to find more ways to reduce spending.

A 3.5 percent, or $256 to $297, reduction in per student allowance would be in addition to an already budgeted $170 per student decrease from what schools received in the 2010-11 school year. Increasing insurance costs for school employees, as mandated by the state, also would equate to less capital per student.

“School districts are already down to the bone,” Finch said. “(Lawmakers) are settling the budget on the backs of the children.”

Area superintendents will meet on May 13 to discuss plans for budgeting for the upcoming school year.

The extent of the reduction in funds delivered to Ferris State University would depend partially on whether it amends its employee health benefit options, according to the House’s proposal.

Initially, universities will lose 22 percent of their state funding. There is the possibility of reducing that cut to 15 percent if institutions keep their tuition increases below 7 percent.

Ferris President David Eisler has pledged not to make students bear the extra costs and said Ferris will stay below the state’s tuition cap.

In a change from Snyder’s original budget proposal, the House also passed a penalty of another 5 percent cut in funding if universities offer health benefits to unmarried partners of their employees.

Ferris currently includes unmarried partners in its benefit plan, which Eisler said is not a big expense for the university.

“It’s a concern when legislators look to make stands on certain topics,” Eisler said. “When they begin to micro-manage a university, that’s a dangerous precedent.”

Community colleges would receive a 15 percent, or $44 million, reduction in funding under the House’s budget.

The overall education bill will now go to the Senate, that must match the House’s proposal with its own. Lawmakers still hope to meet Gov. Rick Snyder’s goal of having a finalized budget by May 31.

State Sen. Darwin Booher, R-Evart, said funding all education from the School Aid Fund is a way to level the playing field.

“No longer can we look at three silos of education money,” he said. “The constitution is clear that it’s education money, not K-12 money. It was a leveling of the playing field because, as I see it, K-12 is not all of the kids.”

The senator also supports a proposal to increase funding for early education by $6 million, which would create more open slots in those programs.

“It’s at that age that you really can make a difference in the kids’ development,” Booher said. “The evidence shows that age, the first five years, is where you need to spend money for the development of that child. It does more good there.”

Finch encouraged the public to continue to express their opinions to senators and representatives, though he said it is disappointing that there seems to be no impact on legislators so far.

“We’ve been beating down their doors, but they don’t seem to be listening,” he said.