Tom McKee is having some hard conversations right now.
“Do we eliminate our elementary school? That means we put our kids on a bus for two hours one way to get to the nearest school,” says the Superintendent of Whitefish Township School District.
Spanning 270 square miles, the remote district has just 53 students, McKee says. “Do we eliminate our high school? Same thing, putting our kids on the bus, two hours one way.”
Located in Paradise, Michigan on the shores of Lake Superior (McKee can hear the waves from his office,) the district is one of a small handful of isolated schools worried for their survival.
That’s because Governor Gretchen Whitmer recently vetoed a $7 million aid fund for small, isolated schools. Political analysts say it’s part of a larger strategy to get Republicans from northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula back to the negotiating table on road funding. The implication being, should the talks go well, the isolated schools fund and some other vetoed items could be restored in a supplemental budget.
For districts like Whitefish Township, the veto amounts to roughly a $200,000 cut in funding. They’ll be okay financially this year, McKee said. But next year, he said, the situation would be dire.
“My 53 tremendous students up here in Whitefish are the political football that is being kicked back and forth between the parties right now,” McKee said. “And that’s not ok.”
So will Lansing save Paradise?
But the governor’s tactics appeared to backfire on Friday, when Republican leaders in Lansing said they’re done talking about the state budget, and are moving on to other issues.
Traverse City Republican Wayne Schmidt called Whitmer’s veto “a shame” in a press release on Friday.
“I believe she is targeting northern Michigan and Upper Peninsula districts and blackmailing the Legislature into signing on to her massive gas tax,” Schmidt said in the statement. “Students should not be used as leverage toward political goals.”
Whitmer’s spokeswoman, Tiffany Brown, said the governor “had to make tough decisions” and that there was “still more work to do.”
“Line item vetoes can only fix so much - it will take Republicans and Democrats working together to get it done,” Brown said via email on Friday. “The Governor announced that she is working with Senator Curtis Hertel on a supplemental package that will fund key priorities to protect education, public safety, and public health. If Republicans want to come back to the table to negotiate changes to the budget she signed, she is ready to talk.”
But if the isolated school funding isn’t restored, it would be financially devastating for a handful of school districts, said Peter Spadafore with the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators. But he’s not giving up hope just yet.
“It’s too premature for everyone to know what’s going to happen next,” Spadafore said. “After everyone’s had a few days to digest what these line item vetos mean for local school districts, I think next week we’ll have a better idea of what is next.
“I’m not usually a glass-half-full kind of guy, or even a glass-half-empty kind of guy. I just look at it and think there’s poison in that glass. But I think once we understand the full ramifications, like the small and isolated school funding, there’s going to be a desire from lawmakers and the executive branch to fix those issues. At least, I certainly hope so.”
But Jennifer Smith, the director of government relations at the Michigan Association of School Boards, is less optimistic. She’s telling school districts to plan as if that money isn’t coming back.
“I can’t tell you there’s a supplemental [budget] coming,” Smith said. “Your October 20th payment [from the state for school funding] will reflect this budget. So these [isolated] districts will get smaller payments. We're stuck here right now, and that's what we're going to have to plan for. And it's unfortunate.”
Concerns families will leave “if their children have to be put on a bus 4 or 5 hours a day.”
Tom McKee isn’t the only superintendent thinking about closing the high school.
So is Greg Nyen, the superintendent and principal at Burt Township School District in Grand Marais. With 31 students in the district, they would probably have to cut back to just kindergarten through 6th grade, he said.
“One of the implications here is, if we end up closing our doors or reducing to a K-6 school, we’re going to be putting students on buses who are going to be experience four hours a day on a bus commute,” Nyen said. “And much of that time in the winter is going to be spent in dangerous road conditions. So, it’s not a good option for families, and certainly not for the children.”
The vetoed funding is about 23% of the district’s budget, Nyen said. But he believes the cuts would hurt more than just the schools.
“This is largely a retirement community, and its only economy is tourism-based,” he said. “And if your young families, the only families in an otherwise elderly community, if they move away because there is no education system, who will be left here in the community to do the heavy lifting?
“Who is going to take care of the snow plow and the snow removal in the winter time? Who is going to run the local businesses? These are currently being run by younger people, and if their children have to be put on a bus for four or five hours a day, they’ve already indicated they won’t be remaining in this community.”
Nyen is meeting with state lawmakers from the area, hoping to convince Lansing to restore the isolated school aid. “You know, shame on us as adults when we start using children as pawns in politics...it’s a shame that we have to create panic and fear in our communities, in order to have conversations and find ways to cooperate and collaborate.
“And my message to Lansing would simply be, look: our young people are looking to adults in this world for modeling behavior. And the type of modeling that is happening right now, is not the type of behavior we would want our children to exhibit in the schools.”