Citizens group seeks equal school funding

TRAVERSE CITY – With the opening day of school looming, a grassroots organization is busily fighting against what they see as an inequitable distribution of State funds to various Michigan public school districts.

Citizens for Equity (CFE) launched its campaign at the end of May and has spent much of the summer contacting schools, citizens, and community leaders across Michigan who feel shortchanged under the current system.

In 1994, voters approved Proposal A which was designed to provide equity in state funding for schools. Since it went into effect in 1995, that equality has been steadily eroded, according to CFE.

"Legislation and budgetary adjustments passed in 1997, 1999, 2003 and 2004 have so greatly distorted the original intent of the measure, that it can be said that Proposal A no longer exists," said CFE Co-Chairman Kirt W. Kilbourne, a Traverse City resident who has two children in the public school system. "Under the current system, there is massive, discriminatory disparity in school funding in our state. The time has come to address this issue once and for all."

CFE notes that during the 2004-05 school year three intermediate school districts (Macomb, Oakland and Wayne) received $694 million in supplemental funding from the state, while 20 other districts receive nothing.

The Traverse City and Kingsley school districts, for instance, receive $6,875 per student, the state minimum. In 2004, Bloomfield Hills was given $14,205, Farmington received $10,813, and Birmingham collected $13,434.

"Our goal is not to take money away from the districts that are receiving more money," said Kilbourne. "We're trying to make people more aware of the inequities."

Kilbourne noted that while more affluent districts may have to make minor cuts to balance their budgets, northern Michigan districts are considering layoffs and more.

"They close one of three pools or they stop teaching Japanese to their six-grade classes, while we're closing schools," he said. "It's wrong. Just plain wrong."

But Rep. Shelley Taub, who represents the 40th District, which includes the 20j ("hold harmless") school districts of Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills in Oakland County, points out that her school districts receive "virtually no federal funds, few at-risk funds, and few other categorical dollars."

"Transportation is higher in most of (the Grand Traverse) districts, but nearly everything else is lower," Taub added.

Lansing is currently considering measures designed to address the problem, ranging from a Senate proposal to allow $60 per pupil "equity payment" to underfunded districts (plus a $225 statewide per pupil increase) to Gov. Granholm's refusal to make any changes at all in education funding.

"Our region's K-12 public school systems have been recognized for producing talented and highly-skilled employees, while facing major inequities in funding, compared to other school systems in this state," said Tino Breithaupt, senior vice president of economic development at the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. "To stay competitive, our communities must be able to offer advanced education resources to our future employees. A good first step is the recently-approved state budget increase of $23 per pupil for school districts with 2005/2006 funding levels below $7,150."

Kilbourne, however, is unimpressed by Lansing's efforts.

"All of the proposals currently under consideration in Lansing fall far short of what is required to rectify this alarming situation," he said. "The state could certainly afford at least a $120 'equity payment' while still providing a $200 across the board annual increase to every district."

For more information about CFE and its campaign, go to www.citizensforequity.org or call (231) 357-7363. BN

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