School officials react to Snyder’s budget plan

By: Jeremy Selweski | Woodward Talk | Published March 2, 2011

FERNDALE/BERKLEY — Local cities are not the only ones that could be negatively impacted by Gov. Rick Snyder’s recent proposed budget. Under the plan, public school districts would also face financial cuts that have school officials concerned about their long-term stability.

According to Berkley Superintendent Michael Simeck, Snyder’s proposal would include reductions of about $300 per pupil in addition to the $170-per-pupil cuts that were instituted last year. The Berkley School District currently receives $8,197 in annual funding from the state of Michigan for each of its approximately 4,800 students in kindergarten through 12th-grade.

“These are not circumstances that we want to find ourselves in, so we’re in the middle of a really big fight right now,” said Shira Good, communications supervisor for the district. “This proposal would take us back to our 2002-03 funding levels. … We say just scrap this whole thing and keep funding stable for Michigan public schools. The state is trying to get out of fixing these budget issues themselves.”

Simeck noted that when the projected increase in Berkley’s contributions to the Michigan Public School Employment Retirement System is factored in to its budget, the reduction jumps to over $700 per pupil. The district’s estimated health care increases would further boost that number to nearly $900 per student, resulting in a budget deficit of about $4.3 million for the 2011-12 school year.

To put these figures in perspective, Simeck explained that eliminating Berkley’s entire K-12 music program would cover only 21 percent of the shortfall, while cutting its athletics program for grades six-12 would offset just 14 percent. In terms of staff reductions, Simeck said, $4.3 million would amount to laying off at least 41 teachers across the district, which would result in adding an average of seven more students to each classroom.

\“This is a perfect storm of a lot of different factors to create a nightmare for our district,” Good said. “We’re not going to calm down, even though it’s still very early in the process.”

Good added that school officials are encouraging residents to contact Snyder’s office, as well as state Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton, D-Huntington Woods, and state Sens. John Pappageorge, R-Troy, and Vincent Gregory, D-Southfield, to advocate on behalf of Berkley and other public school districts.

“To me, it’s just a shame that the state would shift this financial burden onto our children by diminishing the quality of their education,” Good said. “These kids are the future of our state, and if we don’t want to find ourselves in this situation again, then we need to invest in their future and give them the educational opportunities they deserve.”

Ferndale Public Schools Superintendent Gary Meier urged residents not to panic about the governor’s proposed rollback of $470 per student, which would amount to about 4.1 percent of existing state funding for the district.

According to Stephanie Hall, director of community relations and pupil services for Ferndale Schools, the district prefers to take “a strategic and measured approach” to its budgeting. If Snyder’s proposal is approved, officials would favor making the necessary cuts across all school programs rather than sacrificing a select few.

“Our commitment in Ferndale is to remain a full-service district,” Hall said. “We are not considering eliminating any programs out of our budget. Rather than an amputation, we are looking at a diet.”

However, that approach does entail doing more with less. “We’re ready to make changes if needed,” Hall said, “but we are still committed to improving student education. We would always hope that whatever cuts are made, they would not impact the students directly.”

Other changes under Snyder’s proposal include the new State Education Funding Act, Meier said. Under this system, the state would have to financially support more than just K-12 education. School aid revenue, along with some general fund money, would be used to fund schools at all levels, from early childhood education to higher education at community colleges and universities.

Like Good and Simeck, Ferndale Schools officials are recommending that community members reach out to their legislators and other elected officials. Hall believes that residents should support public school funding not only for the sake of the students, but for the teachers and administrators, as well.

“If we want students to be successful in our society, then we need to invest in the trained professionals who teach them,” she said. “People need to show that they value their children’s education. Down the road, we want our talented graduates to stay in Michigan and become our next generation of skilled, hardworking professionals.”