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22 Districts Sue the State of Michigan, Claiming Aid Formula Is

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Detroit--Twenty-two Michigan school districts filed suit against the state last week in an attempt to have its school-aid formula declared inequitable and illegal.

The districts, mostly small school systems located near Detroit, claim that the formula is unfair because some affluent districts spend twice as much on each pupil as do low-income districts.

For example, in 1980-81, $3,442 in state and local funds was spent on each student in Southfield, an affluent suburb of Detroit. During that same school year, only $1,774 in state and local funds was spent on each student in Inkster, a depressed Detroit suburb where property values are low and there is no major industrial base to boost tax revenues.

"While differences in local tax bases can permit differences in police and fire protection, our state constitution intends educa-tional service to be essentially equal," said William Bedell, superintendent of schools in Romulus. Romulus is one of the districts involved in the suit, which was filed in Jackson County circuit court.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Phillip E. Runkel said that "there is obviously a need to re-examine our funding mechanism," but blamed inequities on Michigan's economic depression rather than on the formula.

"The formula is fair," Mr. Runkel said. "The problem is that there is not enough money to go around."

Michigan's school-aid plan guarantees each of the state's 570 districts a flat $365 per pupil, plus $50 for each mill of taxation approved by local voters. (One mill equals $1 in tax for each $1,000 of assessed property valuation.)

Closing the Spending Gap

The formula was designed to help close the per-pupil spending gap between middle- and low-income districts--such as those filing the suit--and wealthier districts. If one mill levied in a district yields less than $50 per student, the difference is made up by the state government. In Romulus, for example, one mill raises about $39 per pupil, so the remaining $11 comes from the state.

Those districts in which one mill of property tax exceeds $50 per student receive state aid on a declining scale. The most affluent districts receive no state aid.

The formula was adopted in 1973 and is still regarded by many school-finance experts as a model system. But rapidly rising property values in some areas, coupled with deep cuts in state aid, have started to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.

In Southfield today, each mill of local property tax raises $106 per student. In Dearborn, home of the giant Ford Motor Company, one mill yields $104.

Those districts are among about 100 in the state classified as "out of formula." Because they receive little or no state support, the "out-of-formula" districts are marginally affected by cutbacks in state aid to education.

But 75 percent of the state's students in "in-formula" districts have felt the pinch of Michigan's economic cutbacks.

The 22 plaintiff districts each donated $1 per student to finance the lawsuit.

Mr. Bedell said the suit, School District Consortium v. State of Michigan, does not ask the court to draft a new state-aid formula. Rather, it asks the judge to determine whether the current formula violates the state constitution.

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