Michigan education leaders were bracing for tough financial decisions next year as the COVID-19 pandemic persists.
But school boards and educators are now breathing a sigh of relief, with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer preparing to sign the 2021 budget approved by the legislature last week.
Michigan’s education spending for K-12 schools, community colleges and universities clocks in at about $17.65 billion, with the School Aid Fund budget coming in at roughly $15.5 billion. The School Aid Fund budget increased by about $300 million compared to the 2019-20 budget.
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“Based on what we were hearing months ago, how can we not be anything but pleased?” said Don Wotruba, executive director for the Michigan Association of School Boards. “In a normal year, as health care costs and things go up, would like to see more money? Absolutely, but how can you not be happy that we have a budget that didn’t result in cuts?”
The sentiment was shared by Michael Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association, who called the situation “dire” prior to the budget clarification.
The budget contains a modest uptick for K-12 spending, including a one-time $65 per-pupil increase for K-12 schools. Additional money is available for school districts with increasing enrollment based on a blend of pre- and post-pandemic enrollment levels.
These allocations alleviate the financial burden on school districts forced to spend more of their own budget on personal protective equipment to lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission, Wotruba said.
“School districts are experiencing extra cost in certain places, but we hope that the additional funding put in this budget will help in that space,” he said. “It’s all relative to the situation that we’re in… We may still need to make cuts locally, because some costs may have increased faster, and they’ll have to deal with that. In the scope of things, we’re pleased with where our districts are.”
Legislators should’ve committed to more than a one-time K-12 spending increase, said Wanda Cook-Robinson, superintendent of the Oakland Intermediate School District on Thursday, Sep. 24.
“Every educator in Michigan right now is really focusing on how we can help students recover from this unprecedented disruption to their education,” she said. “But the recovery is not going to be quick.”
Elsewhere in the budget, $53 million is allocated toward providing K-12 teachers hazard pay, as well as $5 million for retaining first-year teachers, $5.6 million for mental health funding, $2 million for virtual learning grants and $1 million for forgiving student lunch debt.
The hazard pay would equal a lump sum of about $500 for each teacher, support staffer and administrator, as well as $250 for sports staff, said David Hecker, president of the American Teachers Federation in Michigan.
The money supplements PPE needs for teachers, as well as at-home costs for those working remotely, he said. It also acts as a small recognition of their work since the outbreak of coronavirus in March, he said.
“It’s not a ton of money, but it’s a nice recognition of what teachers and support staff have done since last March up to now,” he said.
Hecker also credited the budget with helping prevent cuts in local districts. However, he said public education was “grossly underfunded” before COVID-19, and the pandemic has exacerbated the problem.
“COVID adds expenses everywhere in education,” he said. “But the revenue of the state is the revenue of the state. We appreciate that there not only weren’t cuts, but in fact some increase.”
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The budget includes $14.3 million for the Connecting Michigan Communities grant program, which is designed to expand access to high-speed internet around the state. That may offset out-of-pocket costs by teachers and districts to ensure virtual education was ready for the fall, Wotruba said.
“Many of those school districts decided to buy out-of-the-box virtual education packets and curriculum that would tie to our state standards, rather than try to adapt to our current curriculum to an online format,” he said. “That’s a bigger lift on our teachers… they were making those expenditures regardless of what our state revenue was going to be… Thankfully, we now have some offset from the state.”
Money to educate and re-train adults in high-demand fields was also included in the new budget.
In the general operating budget, the Whitmer administration and legislature agreed to fund the governor’s Michigan Reconnect proposal at $30 million to offer adults financial assistance to attend community college.
The Michigan Reconnect scholarship would cover community college tuition for adults who need to re-tool their skills. Due to the pandemic, the program was scrapped to create room for other emergency funds.
Now it can finally get off the ground, Hansen said.
“We’re very excited about that opportunity,” he said. “We’re working with the state on all the program eligibility requirements on an almost weekly basis before we can actually enroll students, but we hope to do that sometime in the spring of 2021.”
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The Michigan Reconnect scholarship is a “last-dollar scholarship program,” Hansen said, meaning community colleges have to exhaust their own financial aid programs before dipping into the extra funds.
Community colleges initially saw an 11% cut in its state revenue back in May, Hansen said, and this new budget fills that hole with “unrestricted” funds, unlike CARES Act money meant only for COVID-19 prevention spending.
“We were bracing for another round of cuts, quite frankly,” he said. “It’s hard to say we’re appreciative of no increase, but on the other hand, given where we were a few months ago, a flat budget is somewhat welcome news.”
Future K-12 budget considerations may include proposals to maintain virtual education support for parents who find their child prefers that environment, Wotruba said.
“How will districts have to adjust to that?” he asked. “Now that we have integrated technology into our planning, districts will be asking how they can offer this in a more robust way when we return to normal.”
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