EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is the final installment in a series analyzing how local school districts are grappling with historic funding shortfalls for the upcoming year.
OTTAWA COUNTY — With the fiscal year for public schools coming to an end on June 30, districts across the state have had to approve budgets for the 2020-21 fiscal year while facing high amounts of uncertainty and projections of historic funding shortfalls.
A large portion of school funding comes from sales and gas taxes, which have significantly reduced amid closures due to the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in a shortfall of over $2 billion for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 fiscal years.
On top of expecting less money for operational costs, districts are facing high amounts of new costs to reopen safely amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“The hardest part of this whole process is, we know we’ll have less funding and if we’re face-to-face or blended learning in the fall, we are going to have more costs,” said Hamilton Community Schools Superintendent David Tebo. “We’re going to need to spend more dollars in places we haven’t before.”
To avoid major operational deficits, and in many cases layoffs and program reduction, school leaders say support from the federal and/or state government is needed.
“Early estimates suggest an investment of an additional $200 billion is needed to protect public education nationwide,” said Brian Davis, superintendent of Holland Public Schools, which is facing $1.4 million in layoffs and program reductions. “Congress needs to take this action, and do so quickly, so the nation’s schools can adequately prepare for the challenges ahead.
“As a school leader, this budget cycle has been the most challenging of my career and it weighs heavy on my heart. However, I remain hopeful that we will receive the support necessary to operate our schools and that we will be able to restore many of the changes required of us at this time.”
Difficult day today making phone calls to exceptional employees who are committed to kids. Layoffs are never easy. We need the support of our state/federal govt for the greatest flexibility of dollars, additional support, and a budget for next year. #ourkidsourfuturemi
— Brian Davis, Ph.D. (@bdavisHPS) June 23, 2020
“It’s important that the federal and state governments look at what things are most important,” Tebo said. “I don’t envy the job of legislators, but I know this — investing in students is investing in local communities.”
Two plans to provide federal dollars to schools for costs associated with mitigating the spread of COVID-19 were recently introduced, one by Republicans in the Michigan Legislature and one from U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow.
While encouraged by the plans, local leaders say there are still major operational funding losses that aren’t addressed.
“There are the costs that are new for us, but other cuts come directly from the money that we’re planning on getting to educate our kids,” Black River head of school Shannon Brunink said. “I don’t know that (the plans) address the hole the state will be feeling in a year.”
“This is a good first step,” Zeeland Public Schools Superintendent Cal DeKuiper said of the GOP plan. “Once they get this in place, I think the next step is to loosen the restrictions on the federal dollars. Right now, those are geared to COVID-related expenses. Our biggest expenses when we lose $3.7 million in revenue is teachers and support staff.”
“(The GOP plan) is not an investment in K-12 public education funding long-term,” Davis stated. “There is still a lot of work to do prior to next school year to make sure our schools have the resources necessary to support the needs of students during this pandemic — but this is a start.”
A group of more than 40 school leaders from Ottawa, Kent and Muskegon counties recently signed a letter to the state and federal governments pleading for assistance, saying that schools met the challenge of finishing the school year, and it’s imperative the government do its part.
With their budgets set for now, schools find themselves in a position of waiting for guidance and hoping for the best.
— Contact reporter Mitchell Boatman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SentinelMitch.