‘We’re out of time for excuses’: Michigan school leaders say lawmakers must finalize education spending

Some Michigan school leaders are urging state lawmakers to act to give schools the guidance and resources they need to begin the 2020-21 school year. (Anthony Lanzilote)

As an Aug. 15 deadline looms for Michigan school leaders to unveil their plans for reopening for the 2020-21 school year, some say a lack of guidance and funding uncertainty are forcing many to abandon plans to start the year in-person. 

But starting the school year fully remote is an option “educators and parents agree does not provide students with the best learning experience,” according to a press release from the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education, a group that represents the interests of school leaders in metro Detroit. 

During a virtual media roundtable the group hosted Friday, Robert Shaner, superintendent of the Rochester Community Schools district, said, “School districts are facing an uphill battle, not just because of the uncertain nature of this virus, but because of the funding shortfalls that make it difficult to meet the challenges associated with returning our students and staff to school safely.” 

Shaner and several other school leaders gathered with members of the press to discuss the state of Michigan schools. They pointed to a lack of guidance and funding uncertainty from state and federal lawmakers. 

The school year officially begins Sept. 8 in Michigan, though some districts plan to start sooner (Flint Community Schools began the school year online Wednesday), but state lawmakers have yet to approve a budget. School leaders have been bracing for substantial cuts in funding since the pandemic began, because of massive drops in state revenue. Many have been counting on a second round of federal coronavirus relief dollars to help address any budget shortfalls, but Congress has yet to act.

In May, Congress approved the first round of federal coronavirus relief funds, which included $13.5 billion to help schools deal with the financial impact of the pandemic. Michigan received $390 million. Most went directly to districts, with the remaining $40 million distributed in grants by the state department of education. School leaders have said that money likely isn’t enough to plug budget holes and cover additional costs related to educating students during the pandemic.

Those attending the Friday media event said state lawmakers don’t have to wait until additional federal dollars are approved to pass a Michigan budget that gives schools the resources and certainty they need.

“Lawmakers still have an opportunity to pass a clean K-12 spending bill immediately that utilizes General Fund dollars to make up the deficit in the School Aid Fund and ensure schools receive the resources and funding certainty they critically need as they attempt to finalize reopening plans,” said Robert McCann, executive director of the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education. “We’re out of time for excuses. Our students need action.”

Reopening discussions in the Michigan Legislature were stalled when hearings and sessions were canceled this week after a lawmaker was diagnosed with COVID-19.

This year won’t be the first that school districts begin the year with no funding certainties. But the fact that it’s happening in the middle of a pandemic is a growing source of frustration. 

Adding to that: Districts planning for in-person classes may not know if that is permitted until days before the school year begins. State officials have said a determination will come close to that date as they review data on positive COVID-19 cases, deaths, and hospitalizations. There are many more uncertainties, as Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti laid out in a tweet earlier this week.

“A month before school starts and MI school districts still do not know: Is F2F learning required?” he wrote, referring to face-to-face learning. “Will online learning be funded? What will per pupil funding be at for 20-21? Will last year’s enrollment be used for our allocation? How will [student enrollment] be counted for online (if funded).”

The Detroit district is planning to begin the school year with a hybrid of in-person learning and remote learning. Many other districts are opting for an online-only start to the school year. School districts and charter schools must have their reopening plans complete by August 15 and posted on their websites by August 17.

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