School aid plan gets Senate approval
Funding increase not enough, some say
LANSING -- The state Senate approved a school budget compromise Thursday that would give school districts an additional $56 to $122 per pupil and set aside $15 million for districts to create new, smaller high schools aimed at reducing dropout rates.
The House is expected to take action on the school budget when it returns to session Wednesday. The $13.4-billion school aid plan would be the last large piece of the 2008-09 budget to be enacted. Lawmakers finished most of the rest of the budget before they broke for summer recess two weeks ago.
But some school officials say that although they're pleased to see an increase, it won't come close to covering their rising costs.
"Our fuel costs went up 42%, our health care costs are increasing about 10% and our retirement costs continue to go up. Those are double-digit increases," said Betsy Erikson, spokeswoman for Bloomfield Hills Schools, which would see an increase in state funding of less than 1%.
Richard Repicky, superintendent at Fraser Public Schools, said this will be the seventh year in a row the district will have received a state increase of about 1%.
"If it was one year at 1%, we'd be fine. But seven years in a row at 1% is killing school districts."
The $15 million for smaller high schools is less than half of the $32 million Gov. Jennifer Granholm had requested. The fund would give out $3 million in direct start-up grants to some districts with high dropout rates, rather than pay off bonds to build the revamped high schools.
Senate Republicans, who hold a majority, held fast against selling more state bonds for the school plan, which Granholm had proposed.
The basic grant to all schools would increase depending on how much each district now receives; lower-spending districts would receive larger increases. The increases are about half of what Granholm originally proposed because state revenues have come in less than expected since January.
The conference committee agreement also would add $10 million to early childhood education programs.
Sen. Ron Jelinek, R-Three Oaks, chairman of the House-Senate conference, predicted most of the increase will pay for school districts' increased costs for heating and gasoline for buses.
Robert LeFevre, lobbyist for the Macomb Intermediate School District, said he doubts the state will have the money to pay for the proposed increases by the end of the year because of a still-faltering economy.
"We've told our districts to budget as low as possible," LeFevre said. "It's very uncertain what the numbers will be."
The budget deal also calls for a change in the definition of what constitutes a first-class school district, although the impact of the change was not immediately clear.
Currently, only a district with 100,000 pupils or more qualifies as a first-class district. Only Detroit meets that threshold, which gives it some financial protections and also prevents community colleges from sponsoring charter schools in its boundaries.
The funding bill eliminates a long-standing provision that prohibits other school districts from establishing their own schools or programs within the City of Detroit without the Detroit school board's permission. That would not apply to charter schools, however, which are governed by a separate law. But the district is expected to fall below 100,000 students this fall, and the state school aid bill would drop the minimum enrollment to 60,000 for a first-class district.
However, the definition of a first-class school district also is in the school code, and that may need to be amended to make the change effective, according to district spokesman Steve Wasko.
"We certainly feel it was an appropriate move from the Senate," Wasko said.
Contact CHRIS CHRISTOFF at 517-372-8660 or email@example.com.