FINCH: Slow death

By Curtis Finch

MOISD Superintendent

As a record number of public school districts (55) operate in the red this year, the trend doesn’t bode well for the future.

Despite the Michigan economy “turning around,” we are being slowed down by the national debt. The federal impact on states over time will be great as states receive many “support” dollars from the feds to run national programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, lunch programs, freeway maintenance and construction, etc.; one impacts the other. John Austin, School Board President of the State Board of Education, wrote a great financial history and forecast paper that is worth summarizing.

In Michigan, the state legislature has made it a priority to change the funding model for your local school district, one small change at a time. As I mentioned in last month’s article, the march toward the defunding of your local school district is slow, but it is constant, consistent, and relentless.

It happens through tax shifting, tax reduction, reallocation of school aid dollars to their pet projects and a philosophy that no tax is a good tax. Term limits have exacerbated this change process as legislators want to make quicker, more dramatic and higher impact decisions before their time is up; there is no time for compromise, consultation with the experts or research, and/or analyzing the long-term impact.

John Austin writes that there are at least four major changes in the last 10 years that are going to have a drastic impact on public schools over the next decade:

1) the commercialization of education for profit by expanding “lower-cost, lower-accountability” options for education; the on-line world has seen the largest recent growth.

The expansion of charter schools without accountability and attention to performance also fits in this box — most charters throughout the state are set up for the elementary (cheaper) student so profits can be maximized.

The state continues to hit the “consolidation drum” for smaller schools across the state, but yet opens the flood gates to start up new “small” schools with limited regulatory structure or transparency. Legislators can’t have it both ways.

That being said, there are some great charter schools that make sense for their area, are performing and help to give parents options where there are limited choices;

2) the removal of $400 million a year from the K-12 School Aid Fund and transferring the dollars to higher education. The authors of Proposal A never intended for this to happen, but a “technicality” got the legislators’ feet in the door and it won’t be coming out without your disapproval;

3) the lack of replacement dollars to the School Aid Fund when $700 million was eliminated with the Michigan Business Tax change; and

4) the using of School Aid Fund dollars to pay unfunded liabilities for the retirement system the legislature designed decades ago. The employer contribution rates are still climbing every year with no end in sight (2004 — 13 percent, 2012 — 24.46 percent), a huge impact on local budgets. The K-12 education community has been paying for the legislature “kicking the can down the road” for the past 20 years.

What can you do? Ask your local legislator how they are going to increase dollars for the local K-12 classroom. Don’t expect a straight answer.

So ask the question again. You don’t need to know all of the neat ideas for each special project they deem as critical — that is why we have school boards, administrators and staff. Just focus on the question. Without your intervention, your local school is in the midst of experiencing a slow death.

Dr. Finch can be reached at cfinch@moisd.org or followed on Twitter at CFinchMOISD