Legislators respond to concerns about education cuts

Coronavirus

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Legislators representing West Michigan in Lansing believe both sides of the aisle can work together to save schools from detrimental cuts related to the financial crisis created by COVID-19.

Earlier this week, area superintendents sounded the alarm on facing a deficit they fear could mean devastating cuts in K-12 education.

Current estimates range from a loss of $600 to $850 per pupil statewide.

“We have been having conversations about where pots of funding may exist to be able to move funding into schools, laws that we may need to change in order to better support school districts and ISDs in terms of raising revenue,” State Rep. Rachel Hood, D-Grand Rapids. “We need to move really fast.”

Hood and State Rep. Mark Huizenga, R-Walker, serve on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on School Aid and Department of Education.

Talks surrounding looming cuts are expected to begin as early as next week.

“As appropriators, it’s our job to make sure that we put all the right dollars in the right place at the right time,” Huizenga said. “That means that we are committed to education and education is really one of the backbones of what we have in the state. It’s really critical that we work tenaciously to make sure that we do everything we can to ensure that the students have the best education as possible.”

Because lawmakers are working off estimates, not knowing the full scope of the shortfall is an added obstacle as school districts typically set their budget over the summer.

“School districts ideally have final budget numbers to be able to plan the year ahead as early as June in the given year, which feels late to them, but early to us in the legislative process,” Hood explained. 

Hood believes the committee will need to rely on non-traditional approaches to funding, including considering ways to leverage Medicaid funding in special education programs.

Her district includes Grand Rapids Public Schools, which has struggled but made great progress in recent years. 

“If we do not find solutions, it would mean larger class sizes. It would mean the loss of some schools that may have otherwise stayed open,” Hood said. “It would mean draining the school district’s reserve funds in the first year and then finding ways to address a multi-million-dollar gap in the second year.” 

Hood believes solutions will be in place by the end of July and must include clear recommendations for both the use of funding and what the school setting will look like in the fall. 

Huizenga said not knowing how schools may need to change to combat any future outbreak is something to keep in mind.

“We’re dealing with very unchartered territory here. This year aside, we don’t know what next year’s going to look like. We don’t know what the future’s going to look like for a potential second wave…,” he explained. “I have been in close contact with all the superintendents from Grandville to Kent City to Rockford, each and every one of those has expressed a tremendous amount of concern. Concern for preservation of the integrity of our education system and how we can maintain that.”

While politics have been injected into the state response to this pandemic, it appears everyone can agree minimizing the harm done to schools must be a priority. 

“Both sides of the aisle are very concerned about making sure COVID doesn’t fall on the backs of our kids,” Hood added.

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