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Northeast Michigan private schools decry state suit against virus relief for them

Courtesy Photo Students work in March on an art assignment about what home means to them at St. Ignatius Catholic School in Rogers City.

ALPENA — Administrators at private schools in Northeast Michigan are hoping to receive a larger share of federal funds providing relief from the effects of the coronavirus.

A federal policy that would give private schools access to more funding to purchase technology or provide teacher training to move classes online and to purchase personal protective equipment is being challenged in federal court.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel last week joined several other states in suing U.S. Secretary of Education Betsey DeVos over how much Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money would be distributed between public and private schools. In the lawsuit, Nessel accuses DeVos of diverting money intended for public schools and instead redirecting them to private schools.

Disputed is $16 million of $390 million in relief funds given to Michigan school districts from the federal government. The CARES Act included language that requires states to give an equitable share of the relief to private schools.

The outcome of the lawsuit would determine whether money will be distributed based on the number of students in a school or district, as proposed by DeVos, or based on the number of low-income students.

Jim Grulke, principal at Immanuel Lutheran Church, said that, if the money is doled out based on enrollment of low-income students, the school would receive significantly less than it would receive if the funding were based on the total number of students.

Grulke said all students are receiving an education and everyone is affected by the coronavirus, so all deserve an equal share of the money.

“I just want to say that we, as a non-public (school) here in Alpena, have a pretty good relationship with the public schools, and it’s a shame we have to be pitted against one another to get funds that really should be for every student, because we’re all basically affected by this COVID stuff,” he said, referring to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

The Rev. Walter Hurley, apostolic administrator for the Diocese of Gaylord — which oversees several Catholic churches and schools, including All Saints Catholic School in Alpena and St. Ignatius of Loyola in Rogers City — said it is important to be led by an approach that will best protect the health and safety of all children, teachers, and school staff in northern Michigan.

“It is disappointing to hear that the governor, attorney general, and state superintendent of schools have filed a lawsuit, that, if it prevails, would seriously limit funding to our Catholic schools that might come to us as a result of the CARES Act, approved to assist all schools in the midst of this current COVID-19 crisis,” he said in a written statement to The News. “We will follow this situation closely and pray that it is resolved in the best way possible, which takes into account the welfare of all children, both in public and private schools.”

Bryan Broderick, executive director of the Michigan Association of Non-public Schools, said all schools should get an equitable share of the relief funds. He said they have all been impacted by the virus — they’ve all had to close and have to spend extra money to provide remote learning and attempt to reopen this fall.

“As we’ve heard many times before, the virus doesn’t discriminate based on whether you attend a public school or a private school,” he said. “Everybody has been impacted, so Congress’ intent in providing relief funds was to say we want to be able to help all schools, all students. This is really the most equitable way to do it.”

Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association, said in a written statement that state leaders are standing up for Michigan public school students and their families.

“This lawsuit, filed by our state’s outstanding Attorney General Dana Nessel, will help ensure that Betsy DeVos’ plan to funnel public tax dollars to private and religious schools through the CARES Act pandemic fund is stopped,” she said. “On behalf of our 120,000 public school employee members, I thank the governor and attorney general for challenging DeVos’ shameful backdoor voucher plan to fund private and religious schools during this pandemic.”

Crystal Nelson can be reached at 989-358-5687 or cnelson@thealpenanews.com.

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