MARQUETTE - With Michigan's public education system funded almost exclusively through pupil totals in school districts, many public educators and parents have begun thinking outside the box on how to bring more money into their local schools.
The state allocates roughly $7,000 - at minimum - to its public K-12 schools for each student enrolled in that district, a total that is near the rate of the 2005-2006 school year.
The per-pupil funding model has been slowly choking school districts in the state which have seen year after year of declining enrollment - Michigan was the only state in the country to have a population decline in the last U.S. Census.
Gwinn cheerleaders and the Modeltowners' tiger mascot pump up the crowd before the start of the basketball game against Manistique in Gwinn in December. Gwinn boosters have raised a record amount of money this past school year — nearly $90,000 — to keep sports programs going in tough budget times. (Journal file photo by Zach Jay)
Districts downstate have made national headlines recently, some shuttering their doors because they couldn't make payroll.
The state's Department of Education recently released its quarterly update to lawmakers, which showed a record high 55 Michigan districts operating with deficits, including four in the Upper Peninsula.
Of the 55 districts on the list, 20 had deficits running in the millions or tens of millions. Detroit Public Schools had a projected general fund balance by the end of the month that was more than $72 million in the hole. Ypsilanti Public Schools was expected to have a deficit of more than $9 million. Six more districts had projected deficits of more than $1 million but less than $2 million.
The list, however, doesn't include districts teetering on the edge, ones that don't yet have deficit fund balances but soon could. Gwinn Area Community Schools didn't make the list, but could be in a position to not make its payroll as early as October, according to its superintendent, Kim Tufnell, who made the announcement at a school board meeting last month.
Area districts have seen their enrollments declining for many years as well, but few compare to the loss which occurred in the Gwinn district upon the closure of the K.I. Sawyer Air Force base in the late 1990s.
Area residents and educators, however, have found ways to get around the funding issues that go hand in hand with declining enrollment.
Jackie Hart, president of the Gwinn Athletics Booster Club, said the group raised a record amount of money this past school year - nearly $90,000.
The money is used to help purchase equipment and uniforms and as scholarships for students unable to pay the fee to play certain sports. Hart said she puts in work for the booster club equal to a full-time job, on top of the full-time job she already has.
With a 16-year-old son in the Gwinn school system, she does the work because of a deeply-held conviction.
"I think it's extremely important (to have athletics)," Hart said. "There' s a focus on something and they're doing something with their time. Idle hands are the devil's home. If they're not busy doing that, they're going to find something else to do."
Though the group has begun raising thousands more dollars in recent years than it ever had to before, Hart said the tens of thousands of dollars needed to keep Gwinn athletics going was a price tag the booster club saw coming.
"Now, with budget cuts for the schools, they want to eliminate some of the things with athletics," Hart said. "The booster club has known that we'd eventually have to take over the expenses from the school."
In her time as booster club president, Hart said she has whittled the club's budget down to bare bones, ensuring as much of the money they collect as possible can go towards the students.
"The year before this, we took in about $55-$60,000. The year before that, about $35-$40,000," she said. "There was a big jump. Personally, I took the time to figure out our finances, to sit down and save us the money. Instead of having things shipped to us, I go get it. That was a huge costs savings to the booster club, but adding all those extra events, and that big campaign was a huge boost this year."
The group has been using Gwinn Athletic Director Rob Soyring's slogan, "Dare to be great" as the backbone of its "Dare 2B Great All Sport Fundraising Campaign."
The 12-member club organized a 5K snowshoe, a bean bag toss tournament, a softball tournament, "Meet the Modeltowners" events and sold banners to local businesses to be displayed during athletic events just in the last year alone, along with other activities.
"We also had calendars that go out to all the different businesses," Hart said. "They would have their names on that, also our programs we give out at the games have all the business advertisements in them too, to get their names out there."
But it isn't just booster clubs looking for innovative ways to bring more money into public education in the area.
Several area teachers are participating in a specialized type of online crowd-funding found at www.donorschoose.org.
The website, established for public education projects only, allows educators to post a project and its total cost online with a description of materials needed and the educational benefit to students. Anyone browsing the site can donate as much or as little to the projects as they'd like.
Projects are broken down into categories, such as art or science, but are also broken down into financial need, so users can look for districts within high poverty areas.
Teachers from several area schools, including Gwinn High School and Lakeview Elementary School in Negaunee, have listed projects ranging from math to science to foreign languages.
Teachers asked for iPads or other technological equipment to outfit their classrooms along with everyday supplies such as paper or markers.
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is jstark@miningjournal. net.