Superintendent sick of ‘lip service’ to education

“It’s like threatening to tear off your leg, and when they only tear off your foot you are supposed to feel good about it,” said Rockford Superintendent of Schools Michael Shibler.

He referred to last week’s per-student funding cut of $165, passed by the legislature Thursday evening and signed by the governor Friday.

Shibler said that Rockford already implemented $2.1 million in cuts in anticipation of the funding freeze districts across the state were expecting.

In last week’s Squire, Shibler said an earlier proposed $218 cut per student would be catastrophic for our state’s education system.

“The spin lawmakers are putting on this is that we only cut $165. It could have been $218,” he said.

Shibler said the cut comes three months into the district’s fiscal year, which runs June to July. “It will have to be personnel and programs,” he said of an additional $1.7 million he is now forced to trim from the district’s budget.

Shibler said he and financial analysts, such as those at the University of Michigan and the Citizen’s Research Council have been saying for years that school funding is flawed.

“There is a structural deficit in the School Aid Fund. You don’t save it by making cuts,” he stated. “The state legislature has come up with one-time fixes year after year to get schools money. It’s over. There are no more one-time fixes.”

Shibler praised Rockford Representative Tom Pearce, who was one of very few who did not vote for the cuts. Pearce explained his stance.

“I still feel there are sources within our current revenues that this could be done without needing to raise any new taxes or fees for this school year. I also feel that if we are going to make any cut to the School Aid budget it needs to be accompanied by cost saving reforms,” Pearce said.

“The reason I was unable to support the final package is because it represented cuts without the reforms I felt should be there.”

Senator Mark Jansen voted for the cuts. He said many districts took an earlier proposal of $110 per student cut that did not pass and built their budgets with that in mind.

He also said the difference between the proposed $218 cut and the passed $165 cut involved some money shifting that will benefit inner-city schools more than suburban ones like Rockford.

He said “The difference between the $118 and the $218 went into categoricals, things like before and after school programs. It is not as advantageous to Rockford as it will be for Grand Rapids.”

“We knew we had to make cuts. What is the best way to use money for schools?” he stated.

He said there was talk of putting Stimulus money into the School Aid Fund, but instead put it toward per-student funding and for schools this year. He called it a one-time fix to lessen the possible $218 cut to $165.

Jansen said $250 million in stimulus that could have been used this year for school funding will be saved for next year.

“Otherwise we could face $400 to $500 per student cuts next year. Instead we are trying to keep that money in the School Aid Fund and soften cuts next year,” Jansen said.

“What we are trying to do is just manage the next couple of years. The economy is still struggling,” he stated.

Jansen also said school cuts were much less than cuts made across the state. “Schools were cut about 2.3 percent,” he said. “Medicare was cut eight percent, cities and villages were cut 11 percent, townships were cut four percent.”

“Schools are just the biggest number,” he stated. Jansen said state-wide the school system is a $13 billion dollar a year expense. He also pointed out that people expect the lottery to pay for schools.

“The lottery generates $500 to $600 million a year for the schools. That’s a nice down payment on the $13 billion cost, but it doesn’t pay for it.”

Shibler also made reference to the possibility of $400 to $500 per student cuts in the future. This is the reason he believes reform in the School Aid Fund, not cuts, is necessary. He said this year’s cuts came “out of the blue.”

“We need to make reductions and add new revenue streams,” he said of the fund. “If they don’t fix it economists say potentially next summer we could see $400 and $500 per student cuts.”

“That would be catastrophic. They have already put us into a very difficult situation,” Shibler said.

He said the additional $1.7 he must cut from this year’s school budget because of the decision makes a total of $3.8 million loss for Rockford.

Shibler said he is also frustrated that people do not understand the millage money approved last May cannot be used for school operations. The improvements in the district—new classrooms, school expansions and more—are made with money specifically designated for such use.

“It’s illegal [to use that money for operations]. We cannot commingle funds,” he said. Shibler believes the school has been very good about educating the public on this point of finance and hopes people understand the difference in money earmarked for buildings versus operating budgets.

He said the financial situation is so difficult for schools because there is no other source of revenue for them.

“It’s frustrating. We hear lip service that education is one of the pillars in turning the state around,” he said.

“The spin is ‘We could have cut $218 but we only cut $165.’ That is not at all accurate.”

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