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Hard Times Threaten Public Schools In Michigan

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Alpena County, Mich., October 1981--A bugler plays "Taps" as students drape a black cloth over the Alpena High School sign. Following cuts in state aid and rejection by local voters of three tax proposals, the district's 6,800 students learn a hard lesson in economics: Classes can't run without money.

The county's schools lock their doors for two weeks until taxpayers approve a plan to support basic education--but not gym, art, libraries, extracurricular activities, or bus transportation.

"Our schools have been crippled," one angry parent tells members of the Alpena school board. "Our children have become victims of a system that doesn't work."

Alpena's financial crisis is over for now, as are similar crises that threatened to close schools in a half-dozen other Michigan school districts last year.

But the economic depression in Michigan has prompted state officials to predict that as many as 70 local school districts--12 per-cent of the state total--could go bankrupt during 1982.

And with few signs of recovery for the automotive industry, those officials say that all of the state's school districts, including even the most affluent, could be forced to reduce the number of courses they offer and drop such long-time public-school staples as athletics and guidance counseling.

Public education in Michigan, once considered one of the strongest and best-supported state systems in the nation, is running short of dollars and students. Enrollment has dropped by 18 percent over the last decade; state and federal aid have been cut sharply in the past two years.

And Michigan voters appear unwilling to pick up the tab. Last year--in a sharp reversal from past decades--the state's taxpayers rejected most of the school-tax proposals brought before them.

"In bluntest terms, Michigan schools are going broke," says Hugh Jarvis, president of the Michigan Federation of Teachers. "I'm afraid that school closings may become just another everyday event in 1982."

Adds Robert Muth, director of the Middle Cities Schools Association, which represents the state's 30 largest districts with the exception of Detroit: "I'm afraid we'll wake up one morning and find that Michigan no longer has a public-school system."

Limited Resources

More than most states, and earlier than most states, Michigan has felt the crushing blows of the economic slump, federal budget cuts, and demographic changes that place new and different demands on limited public resources.

The crisis stems in part from deep cuts in federal support, particularly for programs for disadvantaged students. The Reagan Administration's position, as Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell has expressed it, is that "education is the responsibility of the states and local governments."

But this economically crippled state, like many, has been unable to bear that financial responsibility. State aid to schools has dropped by 12 percent in the past two years, slipping from 39 percent of the average district's revenues in 1978-79 to about 36 percent this year. (Nationally, states contribute approximately 48 percent of school systems' revenues from all sources.) More cuts are expected in 1982.

In addition, education appears to have lost its high priority with the state's lawmakers. Since 1971, the proportion of the state budget earmarked for elementary and secondary education has shriveled from 29 percent to 15 percent, while spending in social services and corrections has increased dramatically.

"There's a real irony," says Phillip A. Runkel, state superintendent of public instruction. "The people in prison or receiving government aid are likely to be public-school dropouts. If we could improve our schools and reduce the dropout rate, perhaps we wouldn't have to spend so much on the other programs."

But that appears unlikely.

"The feeling among many state officials is that we have to pay for this new welfare program and that new social-service program, and whatever is left goes to education," says Kerry Kammer, chairman of the state Senate's subcommittee on school funding. "The thinking is that local school districts can raise taxes to make up for what they're no longer getting from the state.

Decline in Quality

"But local school districts can't afford to make up that difference," the Senator says. "They don't have any money to spare. By throwing off the equilibrium of funding, the state has contributed to the decline in the quality of public education."

A major problem has been the 400,000-student decline in enrollment since 1972. School boards that reacted to the baby boom of the 1950's by building new schools and hiring new teachers now find themselves struggling to support systems much larger than they need.

"A lot of local school-board members still don't realize that the days of growing and building are gone," says Gene Caesar, education specialist for the state House of Representatives. "Enrollment was dropping for six years before they started laying off teachers. Some educators still have a tough time coping with the word 'less."'

With fewer children in school and an aging population, the state has witnessed a rebellion against school taxes. In 1981, Michigan's voters rejected more than half of the 870 school-millage issues brought before them, including both continuation levies and requests for new money. Of the 468 proposed school-tax increases, four-fifths were voted down.

It wasn't always like that. As recently as 1975, 70 percent of all school-millage issues were passed.

"Schools are no longer the sacred cows they were through the 1960's and 70's," says Jack Faxon, chairman of the Senate education committee. "Unfortunately, public perceptions of schools now center on crime and violence, declining test scores, teacher salaries, and strikes. These perceptions have shaken the security blanket that once encapsulated education."

If the quality of the schools is allowed to decline, Superintendent Runkel warns, Michigan may never recover from its economic malaise.

"It's basic logic that quality of life ties directly to the quality of education," he says. "If Michigan allows its schools to collapse, what business in the world would ever consider moving here?"

The schools are already showing evidence of decline. In recent years, local officials have hacked away at services that students and parents came to expect over the years--from hot lunches and bus service in East Detroit to athletics and the high-school band in Pontiac. More than 8,000 Michigan teachers have been laid off in the past two years, according to state figures, leaving a total of 82,174 at work this year.

'Serious Cuts' Feared

"But so far we've been lucky," says Louis Romano, executive director of the Michigan Association of Middle School Educators. "So far, most cuts have been in services and extracurricular activities. Now I'm afraid we're starting to see more serious cuts in academics."

The erosion is showing up in both large districts and small. In Detroit, high-school students may now take only five classes per semester. In Livonia, elementary-school pupils no longer study foreign languages, and there is no longer a full-time teacher for gifted students. In Lansing, elementary-school art and music teachers have been let go. And in Pontiac, students use obsolete science texts that are more than 10 years old.

"What's frightening is that trends indicate things will get much worse in the coming years," says William Mays Jr., executive secretary of a statewide principals' association. "Michigan schools appear headed for the bottom of the well."

How deep is that well?

"Not all of the state's 579 school districts will go under in the next year," says Robert McKerr, associate state superintendent for finance. "But a good number of them might. Ninety-four of those districts have run up deficits in the past two years. They're the ones to keep your eyes on."

Mr. Runkel says the state has identified 68 districts as "financially troubled." Most show the same danger signals.

"We get three or four calls every day asking for technical help in drawing up local budgets," he says. "We're watching districts that have deficits, difficulty passing millages, political problems, and a lot of union contracts to negotiate this year."

A Different Problem

The 2,800-student Riverview district doesn't follow that pattern. Voters in the blue-collar suburb of Detroit have traditionally approved school-tax requests.

But last month, the McLouth Steel Corporation, the source of 37 percent of the district's tax revenues, notified school officials that it cannot afford to pay $3.4 million in due taxes. Only the legislature's approval this month of an emergency loan kept the Riverview schools from closing next month.

"Never in my wildest imagination did I see anything this awful happening to our schools," says Charles Kromer, assistant superintendent in Riverview. "The problems of one business threaten our entire school system. If it happens to us, I fear it could happen to anyone."

"Could it happen here? It could happen anywhere," says Michael Murch, superintendent in the tiny Mancelona district. "When I look at the economic situation in this community and hear rumors that this plant is closing or that plant is closing, I know it can happen."

Michigan's public schools long were among the most affluent in the U.S. A growing industrial base provided the bedrock for a solid tax structure. For decades, residents willingly paid school taxes far higher than the national average.

Now, many fear, those days may be gone forever.

In increased spending on education over the past two years, Michigan ranks last among the 50 states.

In the past four years alone, Michigan has slipped from 10th to 18th among the states in per-pupil spending, according to the National Education Association. State aid per pupil, adjusted for inflation, has declined from $1,150 in 1978-79 to $1,024 in the current fiscal year.

Senator Kammer and a colleague have filed legislation that would set aside 20 percent of the state budget for education. Under the terms of the bill, education funds--like highway funds--could not be raided for other purposes. But the measure is given little chance of passing.

School-District Mergers

"I think we have to start looking at school solutions that don't involve a lot of money," says Mr. Runkel, the state superintendent.

Mr. Runkel is promoting school-district mergers as one way to deal more effectively with declining enrollments and shrinking budgets. If small school districts were eliminated, he says, students could be served better for less money.

Another boon to schools could come through a change in tax-collection laws. Currently, most schools run on a fiscal-year calendar beginning in July, but may not collect lo-cal property-tax money until January. As a result, most borrow money at high interest rates in order to survive until tax-collection time.

Schools in Rochester, for example, had to borrow $10.25 million last fall. The interest charge was $875,000, or 3.4 percent of the district's entire annual budget.

But school-district mergers and changes in the tax-collection laws appear to be only part of the answer to Michigan's school problems. Most experts agree that the quality of education in the state will decline until more money is injected from the local, state, or federal governments.

"In the past few years, our top-notch school systems have been getting worse in all respects," says Stanley Hecker, an education-finance specialist at Michigan State University. "The only hope is the revival of the economy. When that will happen is anybody's guess."

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