District leaders fear ‘unsustainable’ cuts without relief

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Educators around Michigan are sounding the alarm on potential cuts that would devastate public education if lawmakers don’t work to deliver financial relief. 

“I have 52 years as an educator in the state of Michigan and this is absolutely the most devastating,” Rockford Public Schools Superintendent Mike Shibler told News 8 Wednesday. “I’m telling you right now we cannot sustain these kinds of cuts in public education.”

Friday, 41 superintendents involved in the West Michigan Talent Triangle (WMTT), including Shibler, called on state and federal legislators to alleviate pressure on schools as estimates put the Michigan School Aid Fund upwards of $1.3 billion short of previous projections. 

That could translate to $700 per pupil cuts across the state, according to calculations from WMTT.

“I do believe that those numbers will change and so forth, so there’s no set fixed number right now,” Shibler explained. “But whatever that number comes up with, it is devastating.”

Last week, the chair of the state Senate’s education budget subcommittee said schools should brace for a potential 25% cut in K-12 funding next year.

“The implications on our future and our economy are ones that we can’t just wave away,” Godfrey-Lee Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Polston said. “We need to make sure our system is vibrant in order to thrive in the future.”

For perspective, Polston said cuts based on the current estimated deficit would amount to the district’s entire at-risk funding to support students with additional needs, its entire K-12 athletics and music programs and 15 to 20 classroom teachers. 

More than a decade ago, during the Great Recession, Michigan schools received $1.6 billion in federal support, according to WMTT.

“This crisis has been measured at two and a half times worse than what we endured starting in 2008, but when you look at the federal allocation for K-12, it’s one percent of the $2 trillion that’s been allocated. So, what we’re asking for is federal stimulus support,” Polston added. 

In addition to creating a financial crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has also forced people to recognize the vital role schools play not only in education but also for students’ overall health and wellness. 

Meal giveaways have entered their second month across the state to help families relying on free and reduced programs.

Muskegon Area Intermediate School District Superintendent John Severson told News 8 more than a million meals have been handed out, a testament to the need in Muskegon County. 

“I worry if we get into really deep cuts what that means for our most vulnerable, for our children who receive special education or mental health support or need more literacy support,” Severson said. “I’m really concerned about the time we’ve lost, and we have to hit the ground running in good shape (in the fall) and if we are short of resources, we’re going to lose more time.”

The other glaring obstacle educators are faced with is the post-COVID-19 classroom setting. 

How can districts be asked to ramp up cleaning and consider smaller class sizes while also being told there is currently no financial support?

“There’s a lot of safety precautions we’re going to be asked be put into place and when you think of that, those things are going to cost money,” Severson added. 

This budget burden is compounded by teachers already going to great lengths to keep students on track. 

“We should be very proud of our public schools,” Shibler said. “Our teachers and our building principals and our administration came up with online programs, not in what would normally take months and maybe even a pilot program to implement. In days, they came up with these online programs.”

News 8 will be following up with legislators to determine when and if steps will be taken to relieve schools. 

“This is not a partisan issue. This is truly a bipartisan issue that needs to be addressed right now,” Shibler said. 

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