MARQUETTE - The head of the largest school district in the Upper Peninsula is pleading for state government officials to come up with a way to avoid massive funding cuts for public schools.
"This focus isn't really on our school district," Superintendent Jon Hartwig of the Marquette Area Public Schools said in an interview Wednesday. "Everybody in this region has this same problem. That's universal."
He drove down to Lansing early on the morning of Nov. 10, just to attend a rally at the State Capitol about public school funding and came back later that day.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm shakes hands as people gather at the Capitol in Lansing on Nov. 10 to support adequate funding for public education. Marquette schools Superintendent Jon Hartwig was among those attending the rally, and he later talked to Upper Peninsula legislators about the impending funding crisis. (AP photo)
Hartwig was among the hundreds of students, parents and school officials who rallied outside the Capitol to take their message directly to lawmakers.
Hartwig and some other school officials also had a chance to talk one-on-one with state lawmakers, including Sen. Mike Prusi, D-Ishpeming, and Rep. Steve Lindberg, D-Marquette.
"I felt it was important to carry our grave concerns over a lack of basic funding directly to Sen. Prusi and Rep. Lindberg," Hartwig said. "But I wouldn't be able to comment on whether it was an effective message or not."
The legislators couldn't offer much in the way of assurances, except that an early October cut of $165 per student for the current school year is all but a foregone conclusion.
"That's over a half-million (dollars) that's gone," Hartwig said about MAPS' situation. "And another $127-per-student cut that will go through Friday if revenue isn't found by the Legislature would cost us an additional $400,000.
"This really places us in a bad position, since this is revenue being taken out of our budget for the current year. We're already five months into this (budget) year; we already have agreements with employees."
With the final decision resting in the hands of the Marquette school board, Hartwig said major cuts probably wouldn't be made to his district's budget for this school year. Instead, it would mean further dipping into reserves that have already been tapped for nearly $1.5 million in the current budget, which left nearly $3.2 million in district reserve funds.
The future, specifically the 2010-11 school year, looks even worse. Hartwig estimates 85 percent of all costs for MAPS and other typical public school districts are for employees - wages, benefits, retirement funding and other expenses such as Medicare and Social Security contributions.
"The prediction we're hearing is another cut of $600 per student in 2010-11, on top of the current cuts already being considered," Hartwig said.
He added that while districts like Marquette and several others in the area still have fund reserves built up over past years, they will soon run dry.
"In the short term, we have a sufficient fund balance for a very brief period, but with the way things look, it wouldn't last more than one year," Hartwig said.
Prusi said he understands the frustration, but as a member of the minority Democratic party in the Senate, he said he only has limited power to unblock a partisan dispute.
"There was quite a crowd of people (at the Nov. 10 rally)," he said by telephone from his home on Wednesday. "But it's not going to have much influence unless they can sway the Senate Republican majority."
Lindberg could not be reached on Wednesday.
Prusi said that majority Democrats in the House and the controlling GOP majority in the Senate won't pass each other's funding package, creating "kind of a deadlock" for now.
"I wouldn't call myself optimistic," Prusi said when asked if anything will change soon. "There isn't much to be done for (the) 2009-10 (budget year)."
The Legislature is on break before reconvening after Thanksgiving.
"There has been an educational interest group task force assembled that is looking at different ways to make sure funding for our schools is adequate," Prusi said. "It will probably entail putting together a ballot proposal if we want to fundamentally change the way schools are funded. That would mean a major effort, and it's not something that will happen quickly."
And that doesn't even take into account other interest groups trying to influence the process, he said, such as at least two teachers' unions, the Michigan Association of School Boards, management groups and intermediate school districts.
Prusi's take on the state budget echoed Hartwig's on his district's budget. When it comes to cutbacks, "people always say there's more fat to be cut, but most of the easy cuts were made in the last three or four years," Prusi said.
Hartwig said without a new way to fund public schools, state residents may have to rethink the role of schools.
"The system that was established when Proposal A was passed in the 1990s is proving not to be a perfect system to sustain public education as we now know it," he said. "If a more stable system isn't found, we will have to rethink what our footprint is, what services we are expected to offer."
What can parents and others do?
"With the right amount of parent involvement in Lansing, attending rallies like this, and sending letters and e-mails and calling your legislators, we can let them know how a lack of support for public education is bad for our communities," Hartwig said. "There's a big difference between 20 people and 25,000 people making themselves heard."