by JUDY REED
West Michigan wants changes in the way education is funded. And West Michigan residents weren’t shy about telling that to a panel of legislators and educators on Monday evening, Dec. 7, at an education forum at Cedar Springs High School.
On hand to discuss the issues were Senator Mark Jansma (28th District), Representative Tom Pearce (73rd District), Senator Ron Jelinek (21st District), legislative liaison and former representative Mike Pumford, Forest Hills teacher Jim Ward (Political Action Committee chair of the Kent County Education Association), and Dr. Michael Shibler, Superintendent of Rockford Public Schools. Cedar Springs School Superintendent Ron McDermed moderated the forum.
School districts across the state took another cut this year of $167 per student, then another $127 per student.
“The system is broken, it’s not working, and needs to be fixed,” remarked Shibler. “We’re counting on you folks, who are the grassroots [to make sure it gets changed]. It’s going to take a lot of work.”
Shibler said Rockford’s budget is $74 million, and they are cutting $4.8 million.
The panel discussed issues such as how Proposal A was intended to work, the disparity in funding across districts, the Headlee Amendment, consolidation of schools and services, federal regulations, taxing services, health insurance premiums, and the difference between when the school must have its budget in and when the state fiscal year starts.
“Proposal A worked in a robust economy,” said Pearce. “Returning the state to a robust economy is key. We need to change the formula and enact cost reforms.”
Pumford explained that under the Headlee Amendment, the state could not collect more than 9.5 percent of disposable income from taxpayers. “In 2001 we hit that, and then started cutting taxes. It’s now 7.3 percent—that’s $8 billion in tax cuts. In some point in time, they will need to ask you to pay more. Over 50 percent of disposable income was spent on commodities before 1994, and now we spend that on services. We’ve cut too many taxes, period.” The audience heartily applauded Pumford’s remarks.
Jelinek commented that the state has reduced all budgets much more than the K-12 budget, including eliminating the arts and libraries budget.
“I support the need for strong police and fire, those are necessary services,” said Shibler, in reference to cuts of revenue sharing to municipalities. “But we’re different than the DNR. Our third-graders get the experience one time. We need to give them the best education we can. We need to provide a revenue stream that is consistent, and the quality education we’ve come to expect.”
According to Pumford, Michigan was ranked 10th in the amount they spent on students per capita. In 2007 we had fallen to 23rd, and in 2011 we’ll be in the bottom 10. “That’s what’s happened with us making kids a priority. I’d hate to see what the hell happened if we didn’t,” he noted.
One point of contention had to do with the budget time frames of the state and schools. The schools are mandated to get theirs in by July 1, but the state doesn’t get theirs in until October 1, making it hard for districts to plan on how much money they can plan on from the state. When Jelinek tried to explain that, shouts of “Then change it! Change it!” erupted from the audience.
Pearce said he had a bill last year that would’ve changed it to June 1, but it didn’t pass. “I believe we should change the state budget to July 1, and then put in the constitution that the legislature loses its salary until it’s done,” remarked Pearce. “We may have the possibility for a constitutional convention before next fall.”
Jelinek explained that 20 to 25 years ago it was a quick fix to the state budget to move it to October. He said it would now cost $7 billion to move it back. He was also cautionary on a constitutional convention.
“Be careful what you ask for if you have a constitutional convention. If you open it up, other things can get changed, too,” Jelinek said.
One highlight of the forum was when Rockford student, junior Alex Quinn, presented his petition—signed by 400 tenth- through twelfth-grade students—to the panel.
“We wanted to show the legislators that the students are interested in there being a change in education funding,” Quinn said.
McDermed said he thought the forum went well. “The whole purpose of the forum was to give residents an opportunity to have a conversation with legislators and let them know their issues and concerns,” said Cedar Springs Superintendent Ron McDermed, who moderated the forum. “People are not happy with the way things are. I think that message came through loud and clear.”