Districts face budget pain from governor’s veto

‘Adults need to agree. Adults need to compromise, and we don’t need to drag the kids into it.’
— Supt. John Savel, Trenton Public Schools

By TOM TIGANI
Sunday Times Newspapers

The budget crisis in school districts Downriver and statewide deepened last week with two actions taken by Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

On Monday she signed a school-aid bill previously approved by the Legislature, but vetoed a special funding source that was supposed to provide $51.5 million for 39 eligible districts in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

The funding category, known as “hold harmless” or 20J, was created as a way to maintain high-spending school districts’ budgets when school finance reform was passed in 1994 in the form of Proposal A.

Monday’s bad news got worse Thursday, when Granholm announced a pro-rata cut to public schools’ foundation grant of $127 per student. The cuts come on top of the $165 per student cut legislators already had approved in their school-aid bill.

Combined, the latest cuts mean about $292 less for every Michigan student compared to 2008 levels.

“It’s been a very difficult week for K-12 schools in Michigan,” Granholm said. “We have never seen times in Michigan like this where we’ve had to cut like this.”

Trenton and Melvindale-Northern Allen Park are among the Downriver school districts hit hardest by last week’s announcements. The results are an additional funding loss of about $ 1.6 million in both Trenton and Melvindale-Northern Allen Park.

Granholm said legislators left her “no choice” but to make the veto Monday, because the school-aid bill they approved Oct. 8 was funded insufficiently.

The bill passed by legislators was reliant on at least $100 million in speculative revenue from yet-to-be-approved measures and didn’t account for less-than-projected sales tax revenues – the primary funding source for K-12 education.

“My veto reflected what I am supposed to do, which is pass a balanced budget,” Granholm said at a news conference.

Trenton Public Schools’ budget is now $563 per student less, Supt. John Savel said. The original cut to all districts came to $473,000 in his district. Granholm’s veto meant the loss of another $774,000 and Thursday’s cut means doing without another $826,000, he said — suddenly, and one-fourth of the way into the school year.

Proposal A’s objective was to “take districts at the bottom end up toward everybody else,” he said, not to “bring other districts down to mediocrity.”

“Hit hard isn’t the word,” said Mel-NAP Supt. Cora Kelly of her district. “It’s devastating news. It’s frustrating. I have 42 years in education, and it’s the worst we’ve ever been hit.

“This is extremely disappointing coming this late in the school year. It is really disappointing. We have our staff and programs in place.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, has been steadfast that the budget can be balanced through cuts and stimulus money, and has characterized Granholm’s cuts as political posturing to pressure legislators into raising taxes.

“There is not sufficient support in the Senate Republican caucus for tax increases, and for you to think otherwise is a mistake,” Bishop said in a letter to Granholm.

His comments echo widespread speculation that Granholm’s Monday veto and subsequent announcement Thursday were politically calculated moves in her battle with the state Legislature to balance Michigan’s budget.

Asked whether that meant the situation might change, Savel said, “I honestly don’t know. I have to take the Legislature and the governor at their word.”

He added, however, that schoolchildren are being placed in the middle of that battle.

“Adults need to agree,” Savel said, “adults need to compromise, and we don’t need to drag the kids into it.

“I think it’s wrong to hold kids hostage for a problem when adults can’t agree. There are certain things that a government is supposed to provide, and schools is one of them.”

To illustrate the magnitude of the problems Trenton faces, Savel said that cutting all busing would save only $500,000, as would cutting all athletics. Neither of those moves is planned at the moment, he emphasized, but added that officials will face a steep challenge to try to make the numbers balance.

“We’ve always tried to keep the cuts as far away from the kids as we can,” Savel said. “I don’t know how we’re going to be able do that now.”

Kelly agreed, saying, “We don’t know what we will cut. We want to keep the cuts away from the classrooms.

“This is truly disheartening. We are working so hard to meet the mandates the state has set out, and it’s devastating to have this happen in October after we have hired our teachers and established our programs.”

Trenton already has slashed over $5 million from its budget in the last four years, Savel said, adding that the latest cuts constitute another 7 percent.

“How we (cut) that, I don’t know,” he said. “In the meantime we have students that are trying to learn.”

Trenton’s Board of Education meets tomorrow night and likely will continue discussion on what can be done.

Kelly said she will hold a workshop meeting Nov. 23 with all Mel-NAP administrators, staff and teachers once the dust settles and they know exactly what will come out of Lansing.

(J. Patrick Pepper and Sue Suchyta contributed to this report.)