‘We owe it to the taxpayers to look at it again’

Educators say funding for public schools isn’t working

By: Maria Allard | Warren Weekly | Published May 21, 2014


WARREN — “It’s about money,” Warren Consolidated Schools Superintendent Robert Livernois said during a parent meeting at the WCS administrative center May 6. “It’s about the power of the Legislature and the ability for them to legislate what they want. In this kind of environment, it’s not about supporting public schools.”

During the meeting — which focused on the possibility of redistricting schools in the district in an effort to cut costs — Livernois also threw out the idea for the crowd that gathered that evening to contact their local legislators about the lack of funding for public schools. He also initiated the idea that they all travel to Lansing.

“Lansing and the Legislative process dictates everything that goes on in public schools,” the superintendent said. “We will go and we will have our voice heard.”

School districts around the state receive funding on a per-student basis. Many local districts receive approximately $7,000-$8,000 in funding per student from the state’s Foundation Allowance. But educators say it’s not enough, especially with the increased curriculum mandates lawmakers are now requiring. Also, expenses — including retirement, utility and supply costs — continue to increase.

Prior to the passing of Proposal A in 1994, school districts held local elections to set millage rates for property taxes that funded their schools.

“School districts could raise their own millages and have whatever they wanted,” Livernois said. “It was part of the wonderful tradition that was built here.”

But that all changed on March 15, 1994, when Michigan voters approved Proposal A, which implemented legislation that included new provisions on school operating taxes. The new law eliminated the use of local property taxes as a source of school funding, and money for public education would now come from the state level.

According to the Council Comments of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan dated June 1994, the adoption of Proposal A authorized a new state property tax of 6 mills on all property. This became the state education tax to be levied by the state for public schools funding. One reason for Proposal A was to increase funding for low-funded districts.

But many say Proposal A is not working and, because of it, making budget cuts has been a constant for Michigan’s public schools over the last several years. School districts statewide have reduced staff and programs to cut expenses year after year in an effort to balance their budgets. Some have even closed schools. Declining enrollment also has been a factor in losing per-pupil dollars. 

“Until our elected officials find a way to fund schools at an appropriate level, all districts are going to have to face difficult decisions,” Fitzgerald Public Schools Superintendent Barbara VanSweden said.

While a solution to fix what isn’t working has not been brought to the table, State Sen. Steven Bieda, D-Warren, believes Proposal A needs to be re-examined.

“It’s a law that’s 20 years old. Things have changed in 20 years. Property values went through a huge dip,” Bieda said. “We owe it to the taxpayers to look at it again. We need to find a more stable source of revenue funding for schools. There needs to be a will to look at the problem.

“The Legislature can fashion a plan. We need to come up with funding that is solid and widespread,” he said. “This is something that has been building for a while.”

Bieda is in contact with school officials and teachers on a regular basis.

“I talk with teachers that are dipping into their own pockets to buy school supplies,” he said. “There is something wrong with this picture.”

But not much can be done because Proposal A is law. Bieda, however, would like to see lawmakers begin some serious discussions to begin formulating a way to better fund public education.

“I think we need to have a grown-up conversation on school funding so the voters are well-informed,” he said.