Trimming School Budget Frames Spending Issue

This article originally appeared in the Detroit News on July 16, 2001 at

By The Detroit News

Gov. John Engler cut planned state funding to Michigan public schools by $175 million starting Oct. 1. He did that after Michigan lawmakers sprinted to a 10-week summer break without passing a school aid bill.

Mr. Engler, in effect, is giving public schools an early warning of potential problems. For the record, the governor did not actually cut the current level of state spending for education but trimmed the size of a planned increase.

He acted responsibly. We wish we could say the same for lawmakers, especially those in the House, where a stalemate on spending details developed.

Differences are common in politics. But this time the Legislature took the summer off instead of solving the problem.

Lawmakers reconvene in late September. Arguably, they'll have time to fix the matter before the state fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

But on the other hand, each lawmaker is paid $77,400 a year, plus expenses. Next year, the salary will jump to nearly $80,000.

For that kind of money, it is fair to expect less vacation and more problem solving.

Some educators used last week's budget impasse to seek more public money. In the Redford Union district, for example, school board member Paul Bousquette spoke of wanting "proper funding."

The issue at the moment, however, is one of fiscal responsibility. And as for Redford Union, that district dragged its feet on cost-cutting help offered by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. The Midland-based center, a fiscally conservative think tank, guaranteed Redford $350,000 in savings if the district adopts its ideas for outsourcing and competitive bidding for non-classroom services.

The Redford reaction foreshadows a pending statewide fight. School districts and unions will ask for more public money without exploring all the options for wiser spending.

State dollars to schools are allocated on a per-pupil basis. As populations shift, enrollments shrink in some districts. The answer for those districts isn't more money, but policies to manage downsizing.

The governor's action, of course, is partly political. He fired a shot over the Legislature's bow. He'll have its full attention when lawmakers wander back from vacation.

As is often the case with Mr. Engler, the issue is clearly defined.

For its part, the Legislature in September should resist special interest pressure and quickly resolve school aid issues.