Monday, April 28, 2008

More on School Equity

There was a long story in the Leelanau Enterprise this week about Leland School's band program and the hard decision not to grant tenure to our band teacher. Tonight I had a long conversation with a school board member as we waited for kids at choir. She confirmed what I had suspected, that the decision came down to a matter of money. Keeping the band teacher on, even part time, would have meant cutting an elementary teacher. We talked of keeping band as a pay-to-play activity or somehow drawing on talented members of the community to provide some sort of band experience. But a full-time tenured band teacher is not something that our school can afford.

As I explained last post, Leland School would be in a different position if we had been spending a little more money in 1994. We would have the option of asking the voters to approve millages for operations, for payroll, utilities, and bus fuel, the biggest hunks of a school's budget and the fastest rising portion of everybody's costs.

But Wait! There's More! If your school was one of those spending more than $6500 per student in 1994, your school gets special "20j money" straight from the state of Michigan because....well... just because.

Leland School's business manager, Sandy Potts, described the situation in a March 2008 paper. Here are some highlights:


The promise of Proposal “A” was that both property tax levies and educational dollars for K-12 schools would be equalized throughout the state. The formula created would, over time, narrow the gap between the highest funded and lowest funded K-12 school districts.

Language in Section 380.1211 of the State School Code, as revised, limited the increase in per pupil funding for each district to the lesser of the rate of inflation or the amount determined by the legislature in each year’s budget. This meant that those schools with very high per pupil funding would get enough to cover inflation but the lower paid schools would gradually be given more to bring the funding levels closer together. The gap between the highest and lowest school districts’ per-pupil funding began at $7,532 in 1994 and narrowed to $5,454 in 2000 under this formula.

In 2000, the increase to the Student Foundation Grant Allowance was $238 per pupil but the inflation rate was relatively low at 1.6%. This meant that the schools at the highest end of the funding range would have received less than $238 per pupil. (Remember that these schools were already receiving as much as $5,424 more per pupil than the lowest paid schools.) This was not satisfactory to the schools at the highest end of the scale and therefore the legislature was convinced to add Section 20j of the State Aid Fund which allows them to receive the full foundation increase. This was a direct, purposeful, political change in opposition to the intent of Proposal “A” as passed by the voters of the State of Michigan.

Section 20j payments average $251 per pupil and are given to the 51 highest paid schools in the state. The total paid out under Section 20j has averaged $54,000,000 annually for the last five years, for a total of $270,000,000 paid to the 51 wealthiest districts in the state...

...The 20j schools will insist that they can’t survive without the 20j payments but even you if remove the 20j payments, these schools will still receive a minimum of $1,118 and as much as $5,135 more per pupil than the base foundation grant which is the amount with which than half of Michigan’s schools must operate their programs.

In fiscal year 2000, to qualify for the original 20j monies, a school must have had a base grant of $6500 or greater. Since that time a hold-harmless base grant has been set each year and those above that amount receive the extra monies based on the above mentioned calculation. Fifty one districts qualified in the first year. However, only 50 districts qualified in 2000 based on their foundation grant allowance and only 45 districts qualified in years 2002-2008. Yet each year, all 51 of the original schools have been given 20j payments. To date, the 20j payments made to unqualified schools from 2000-2008 is approximately $84,250,000; money that should have been used elsewhere.

Dan Hanrahan, Director of the State Aid and School Finance Office, states that the legislature has never given him direction to change the funding formula for the 20j schools even though the base grant for those schools has been changed each year. Thus all 51 schools on the original list, whether they meet the new 20j base amount or not, continue to receive additional funding for each of their students.
I can't figure out what the moral of the story is. Schools that always had more money still get more money. The rules are so complicated that I can barely find out what they all are, let alone explain them to you. The Director of the School Aid Fund can't even give a good answer as to why some schools get more.

I keep thinking about last fall when the State of Michigan almost shut down because they couldn't come up with a balanced budget. My brother called some friends in Lansing and asked what the legislators were discussing. His friends said, "Oh the legislators aren't talking, they're just sitting around. The lobbyists are meeting and when they come up with a compromise, they'll tell the legislators what to do."

Meanwhile, there goes the band teacher.

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