Contents of this issue:

  • Straus signs 'Race' application
  • Schools of choice popular in Berrien County
  • Brighton teachers mum on concessions
  • Advice to board: Tax, spend, save
  • Schools cutting, but also building


LANSING, Mich. - Kathleen Straus, president of the State Board of Education, signed Michigan's "Race to the Top" application Saturday, according to the Detroit Free Press. Straus created a flurry of headlines last week by saying she wanted to read the entire form before signing it, leading to talk of division among state board members.

In related news, the Associated Press has reported that President Obama will ask Congress for $1.35 billion to extend the Race program and that he may introduce a competitive grant program for individual school districts, not just for states as a whole.

Applications for the first round of Race awards are due today; Michigan is in the running for up to $400 million in additional federal stimulus funds, the Free Press reported. First-round winners will be named in April, followed by a second round in the fall.

About 700 Michigan public school districts have signed memoranda indicating they support the application and are willing to implement the reform measures it includes, but the Michigan Education Association has withdrawn its support and recommended its local union leaders not sign.

Citing anonymous sources, AP reported that President Obama wants to make federal money available to states that lose out in the first two rounds, and that he plans to continue the competitive nature of the awards as a way to spark improvement in public education.

Detroit Free Press, "Local news briefs: Race for more stimulus cash on to next step," Jan. 17, 2010

The Detroit News, "School aid pitch splits Michigan board," Jan. 13, 2010

Associated Press, "Obama to seek $1.35B more for education," Jan. 18, 2010

Mackinac Center for Public Policy, "Race to the Top Realities," Dec. 22, 2009


BERRIEN COUNTY, Mich. - More than 3,000 students in Berrien County attend a public school other than the one to which they are officially assigned, according to the Niles Daily Star.

Some area districts gain hundreds of students through these schools-of-choice programs, others hold even and others see enrollment declines, the report said.

A "snapshot" report released by the Berrien Regional Education Service Agency for 2009-2010 listed incoming and outgoing students in each district, the Daily Star reported. The largest figures were reported in Benton Harbor Public Schools, where 1,296 students left the district to enroll elsewhere, and 11 students chose to join the district.

In contrast, Berrien Springs added 534 students and saw 11 leave, according to the Daily Star.

Niles Community Schools Superintendent Doug Law told the Daily Star that research in his district showed that parents of elementary children may switch districts because of child care arrangements. At the high school level, he said, it's more often due to athletics, curriculum or a negative reaction to something in the assigned district.

Schools of choice programs affect school budgets because state funding is primarily based on enrollment, the Daily Star reported.

Law told the Daily Star that the choice programs create a barrier to school cooperation, while Jeff Siegel, BESA superintendent, said that the programs are popular with parents and that, "Districts need to review why they are losing students or what successes they've had with attracting students."

Niles Daily Star, "Schools of choice snapshot shows some districts struggling," Jan. 13, 2010

Michigan Education Report, "DPS enrollment down by thousands," Feb. 23, 2007


BRIGHTON, Mich. - Union solidarity is showing signs of wear in Brighton Area Schools, as the teachers union apparently snubbed a request from support staff employees to discuss districtwide concessions, according to the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus.

The district plans to save money by joining a transportation program operated by the Livingston Educational Service Agency, the Press & Argus reported, and Brighton bus drivers who transfer will see pay cuts and loss of health insurance.

Brighton Education Association President Barry Goode declined to attend a meeting with the drivers about the issue and also declined comment to the Press & Argus, it reported.

"I feel they bailed on us, basically," bus driver Laura Rupp told the Press & Argus, speaking of the BEA. "They just turned their backs on us."

One bus driver asked at a recent school board meeting that all employees take a 20 percent reduction in compensation as a way to address an overspending crisis that is expected to reach $15 million by June 2011, according to the Daily Press & Argus.

Superintendent Greg Gray said that even a 20 percent reduction, which would bring down spending by $8 million, was not a guarantee that jobs would be saved, the Press & Argus reported.

He said the district is overstaffed, has an outdated bus fleet and has no sinking fund, according to the report.

Livingston County Daily Press & Argus, "Cuts put Brighton unions at odds," Jan. 14, 2010

Mackinac Center for Public Policy, "Unions Nix Job-Saving Plan," Dec. 2, 2009


LANSING, Mich. - The Michigan State Board of Education heard a range of ideas last week on increasing school revenue and decreasing spending as it prepares to make recommendations to the state Legislature.

Three guest speakers at a state board meeting cited Michigan's defined-benefit pension system for school employees and health care costs as significant budget problems.

Charles Ballard, a Michigan State University economics professor, and Tim Bartik, a senior economist with the W.E.

Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, suggested ways to increase school revenue that ranged from statewide taxes on services to a graduated income tax to allowing local school districts more taxing authority, all as part of a larger review of the state's overall tax structure, according to The Detroit News.

Bartik also suggested spending more money in targeted areas, particularly preschool, saying it would reduce spending on remedial education or corrections programs later, The News reported.

Michael Van Beek, education policy director of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, suggested that potential savings be addressed first, such as lowering the cost of school employee pensions by shifting new entrants to a 401(k)-style plan and introducing health savings accounts. He also cited privatization and charter school growth as cost-saving ideas, The News reported.

Separately, a coalition of school administrators hosted a news conference and suggested these cost-savers, according to a report in the (Royal Oak) Daily Tribune: a regional or statewide approach to negotiating labor contracts and health insurance for school employees; requiring school employees to pay a percentage of the cost of their health insurance; and changing the retirement benefit system.

(Royal Oak) Daily Tribune, "Schools, state education board discuss finances," Jan. 12, 2010

The Detroit News, "School aid pitch splits Michigan board," Jan. 13, 2010

Mackinac Center for Public Policy, "Are Schools Underfunded?"


KALAMAZOO, Mich. - Public school districts in southwest Michigan may be cutting their operations budgets, but they're also spending tens of millions on facility upgrades, according to The Kalamazoo Gazette.

At least seven districts are building or renovating schools, The Gazette reported, paid for through local property taxes that voters have approved in those districts over the past five years. Since the money is earmarked for capital improvements, it can't be spent on operations, a scenario that can create confusion among residents, administrators told The Gazette.

"You can't help but have some people asking, 'Why are you building these buildings?' Those questions are out there," Tom Noverr, assistant superintendent of operations in Portage Public Schools, told The Gazette.

Portage voters approved $120 million in bond issues in 2007. It is building two new schools and renovating another, but at the same time the district is cutting its operations budget in response to less state funding, according to The Gazette.

Noverr and Portage school board trustee Melanie Kurdys told The Gazette that the district is benefitting from lower construction costs and also pointed out that facilities projects put people to work.

However, Kurdys also said districts must be careful not to add space that isn't needed, The Gazette reported.

The Kalamazoo Gazette, "Building boom for cash-strapped schools: Taxpayers in southwestern Michigan OK projects, even as state cuts operating revenues," Jan. 16, 2010

Mackinac Center for Public Policy, "Michigan's prevailing wage law forces schools to waste money," Dec. 13, 2001

MICHIGAN EDUATION DIGEST is a service of Michigan Education Report (http://www.educationreport.org), an online newspaper published by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (http://www.mackinac.org), a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan research and educational institute.

Contact Managing Editor Lorie Shane at

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