Schools worry divided gov’t will slow budgets

ALPENA — School districts must have 2019-20 budgets approved by July 1, but those budgets will not look the same as those in recent years.

With the state’s budget taking longer to complete than it has for the last several years, Northeast Michigan school district leaders are figuring out the best ways to budget for next year without knowing how much money they’ll get from Lansing.

School districts across the state are being conservative when planning 2019-20 budgets, said Scott Reynolds, superintendent of the Alpena-Montmorency-Alcona Educational Service District.

“This is affecting hundreds of thousands across the state,” Reynolds said.

Being conservative includes making cuts, not purchasing new equipment, not hiring more staff members, and working to figure out what will best benefit students and staff.

FRUSTRATION

Local superintendents are frustrated with the lack of movement with the budget.

While school budgets start in the summer, the state’s fiscal year doesn’t start until Oct. 1.

However, for eight years, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder enjoyed Republican control of both chambers of the Legislature, helping state budget get passed relatively quickly. While school officials didn’t always like the numbers Lansing sent them, they at least knew what to put into their own budgets.

Now, Republicans still control the Legislature, but Democrat Gretchen Whitmer is governor, and that partisan split has slowed the state budgeting process.

The state’s education budget hasn’t made it to the state House, yet, and some superintendents are not expecting a finalized budget until at least the end of summer. Some are thinking it won’t be approved until September, or even past the Oct. 1 deadline, causing a government shutdown, as happened the last time the legislative and executive branches were controlled by different parties.

“I’m not going to be surprised if it lingers longer, especially knowing the current political climate, and so many needs for roads, for education, to infrastructure and some other areas, so (it’s) not a good situation for local schools who are trying to create programs for students,” Alcona Community Schools Superintendent Dan O’Connor said.

Reynolds said no one can say for certain when the state budget will be completed. That’s both concerning and frustrating for school districts. Posen Consolidated Schools Superintendent Michelle Wesner said it’s frustrating because schools won’t know their per-pupil allocation.

School districts receive state money based on enrollment. This school year, the state’s basic foundation allowance per student is $8,409.

IMPACTING FUTURE PURCHASES

A few local school districts won’t be able to complete some purchases next year, including buses, maintenance, staff members, and others.

Both Alpena Public Schools and Alcona won’t be able to purchase new buses. O’Connor said Alcona planned to purchase a new bus upfront, but the new plan is to enter a purchase agreement to delay the purchase to over three to five years.

Alpena Superintendent John VanWagoner said the district usually purchases two or three new buses every year, but that is not happening next school year. The district is also not able to hire new staff members.

“We’re literally having to make cuts in the budget in order to have a balanced budget going into next school year,” VanWagoner said.

Reynolds said the ESD won’t have any layoffs, but the district won’t be able to expand programs.

Rod Fullerton, superintendent of Onaway Area Schools, said his district will have to amend its budget in November if the state budget is approved in the fall.

“All school districts are in a bond with this,” Posen’s Wesner said.

GRANHOLM ERA

The last time the state budget took a long time to complete was when Democrat Jennifer Granholm was governor from 2002 to 2010, while Republicans controlled at least one branch of the Legislature. At that time, there were multiple state government shutdowns.

VanWagoner said those shutdowns affected schools. He hopes lawmakers are able to collaborate for the better of the state and students, so a shutdown doesn’t happen this year.

“It’s just really, really hard,” VanWagoner said. “I think it can be even worse and harder this time than it was in those years when we had a divided Democratic governor and Republican legislature like we do now.”

Julie Goldberg can be reached at 989-358-5688 or jgoldberg@thealpenanews.com. Follow her on Twitter @jkgoldberg12.