School starts with budget doubts; Whitmer blames lawmakers

Kent County

KENTWOOD, Mich. (WOOD) — The governor is taking her fight for a state budget to a new group of constituents: second graders.

“I have to make sure I have a budget passed that will pay for things like your school and support your teacher and support your education. And it’s not done yet. It’s getting late,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer explained to kids at Meadowlawn Elementary in Kentwood Tuesday.

School has started for a number of West Michigan districts (Kentwood started Monday and Grand Rapids Tuesday), but they still don’t know how much money they will be getting from the state because the budget isn’t finished. The state’s fiscal year begins Oct. 1 and if there is no budget by then, schools could have to take money from their savings to keep going.

Whitmer, a Democrat, said she wants the Republican-led Legislature, which returned to work Tuesday after a two-month break, to act.

“It’s hard to be continue to be optimistic and to show people we have the ability to do this,” she told reporters.

In March, she proposed spending $15.4 billion for the state’s K-12 schools and $507 million in additional spending for schools with urgent needs. But that plan is dependent on the passage of a 45-cent gas tax increase to fund infrastructure improvements and free up other state money for schools.

“We have two serious crises that we are facing as a state, an infrastructure crisis and an education crisis. Taking from one to address another is simply untenable and unacceptable and not something I’m willing to talk about,” Whitmer said.

She put the ball in the Legislature’s court.

“I think it is unconscionable that we are bumping up against the end of this fiscal year without a real solution from the Legislature and they need to get their act together and get their work done,” she said.

Meanwhile, West Michigan superintendents are casting a wary eye toward Lansing.

“It puts us in a crystal ball-gazing mode,” Forest Hills Schools Superintendent Dan Behm said. “We have to make guesses about our biggest expenditure, which is staffing.”

“You kind of hear things coming out of the state so you estimate,” Kentwood Public Schools Superintendent Michael Zoerhoff said.

This is a return to a situation that was familiar a decade ago.

“Before Gov. (Rick) Snyder, that was kind of the common theme that we wouldn’t have a set budget in, so we’re kind of used to it,” Zoerhoff said.

“We’ve been funding schools and funding state government with gimmicks for about a decade now and I think what we’ve got with this impasse is a this governor is saying we can’t continue the gimmicks,” Behm said.

While the school aid fund has grown by $3 billion over the last 10 years, most school districts have lower per-pupil funding than they did in 2010.

“$3 billion intended to fund kindergarten through 12th grade education has been diverted elsewhere by lawmakers,” Behm said.

On their first day back to work, there were reports of some GOP consideration of a lower gas tax coupled with cuts to teacher pensions, but even that is unlikely to satisfy the governor who wants a comprehensive solution to roads and schools.

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