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Commentary

Early warning and the schools

Jack Lessenberry

Earlier this week, Governor Rick Snyder signed a package of so-called early warning bills he said will help both school districts and the state, in his words,

“to resolve potential financial issues before they become unmanageable.”

Among other things, they require districts which are getting close to the edge financially to begin reporting to the state what their economic situations and budget assumptions are.

Those supporting these bills agreed with the governor and the bills’ sponsor, State Representative Daniela Garcia of Holland, that these put into place what are essentially common sense provisions to prevent districts from falling into the abyss.

As Garcia herself put it, the bills are designed to address

“the systematic challenges faced by local school districts with persistent financial concerns,” and to “ease the unmanageable situations that affect education communities … across the state.”

The package also, by the way, increases the amount that can be loaned to districts in financial emergencies from $48 million to $70 million – though that’s really not very much money, none of it can go to Detroit, and it now will be up to the state treasurer to decide whether a district should receive a loan.

Well, all this may sound good, but support for and opposition to these bills divided sharply along party lines, with Democrats and most in the education community bitterly opposing them. Yesterday I heard from Dan Centers, a school board member in Livonia, a fairly well-off Detroit suburb.

He told me this package was

“offensive to school professionals and boards across the state,” and was designed to give the state more control and to cheapen and ruin education.

Centers told me,

“Livonia has a low fund balance because we have not slashed programs for kids,and salaries for cash-strapped teachers” as some districts have.

The bills do continue the process of transferring power from the state superintendent of schools to the governor’s office, by requiring schools with deficit elimination plans to now report, not to the superintendent, but to the state treasurer.

They also give Lansing the power to withhold school aid payments to districts that have deficits unless the state approves their deficit elimination plans.

Finally, the bills give the state treasurer the ability on his or her own to recommend to the governor that he appoint an emergency manager to take over a school district.

There’s no doubt that these bills take power away from local school districts and give it to the state, continuing a process that began more than twenty years ago, when Proposal A severely restricted the ability of local districts to raise money via millages.

There’s also no doubt that some districts have behaved irresponsibly in the past, and it would have been good to have had some better warning and the ability to nip massive problems in the bud. On the other hand, a long series of emergency managers have proven absolutely unable to do much about the huge deficits racked up by Detroit Public Schools.

So we’ll see. Dan Centers closed his letter to me by saying something I think we should all agree with:

"Quality public education is a public trust, and the most important thing that government can do for people. We need Lansing to do the same and financially support schools.”

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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