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Lack of Funds Forces Mich. District To Close Early

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Drawing the ire of state officials and the support of union leaders, the Kalkaska, Mich., school system last week closed 45 days early for lack of funds.

Citing the lopsided rejection by local voters this month of a millage needed to overcome a $1.5 million shortfall in a $10.3 million budget, district officials said they could no longer provide a high-quality education. On March 24, they sent their 2,300 students and 124 teachers home for the rest of the school year.

"If the state is listening, there is a message from Kalkaska's situation: Change the way schools are financed so every child, no matter where he or she lives, receives a quality education based on funding equity,'' said a statement that Superintendent Doyle Disbrow issued jointly with the leadership of the Kalkaska Education Association, the Michigan Education Association, and the district's union of educational-support personnel.

But state officials appeared to be drawing different conclusions from the incident. A five-member panel appointed by Gov. John Engler met with Kalkaska officials late last week in an attempt to reopen the northwestern Lower Michigan district.

"There have been a variety of ways in which they could have avoided this manufactured crisis,'' said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Robert E. Schiller, who has sent auditors to the district to review its fiscal management.

"They knew they had this problem nine months ago,'' Mr. Schiller said last week. "They could easily have restructured their budget, or made some cutbacks.''

The statement issued by district and union officials maintained, however, that "our own auditors and an independent audit show we have been fiscally responsible.''

As they closed their schools last week, Kalkaska officials held a vigil at Kalkaska Middle School. In attendance was Keith B. Geiger, the president of the National Education Association, as well as officials of other districts around the state.

Mr. Schiller, a member of the Governor's panel, said he had sent district officials a letter making clear that any help from the state would be conditioned on reopening the schools and keeping them open until the end of the 180-day school year.

Any agreement also would require the district to borrow against anticipated tax revenues to fund its current programs and to keep its books balanced next year, Mr. Schiller said.

'Those Kids Deserve Better'

The House is expected this week to consider a bill, overwhelmingly passed by the Senate last week, that would authorize the state to put into receivership any school system that, like Kalkaska, refuses to stay open 180 days a year.

The receiver could borrow the money to reopen Kalkaska's schools and then oversee the district's management, according to the bill's sponsor, Sen. Dan L. DeGrow.

The state already has the authority to take over districts that are in financial trouble, Mr. DeGrow noted last week. But the Kalkaska district is not even in serious financial trouble, he contended, and could easily have stayed open by borrowing funds.

"They don't want to do that,'' Mr. DeGrow said. "We feel that those kids deserve better.''

Jim Fordell, an aide to the House education committee, last week said his committee was closely examining Mr. DeGrow's bill "to see the long-run consequences of passing such a piece.''

"We just don't want to give the impression that the state will come in and take over all of these districts and that will be it,'' Mr. Fordell said. "That cannot happen.''

By closing early, the district stands to lose $270,000 in state aid, state officials said.

Kalkaska's situation also appears to have lent new prominence to the ongoing debate over school funding in the state, which relies heavily on property taxes.

State officials currently list 14 districts as having deficits.

The Berrien Springs schools, for example, will have to cut all funding for student transportation and spring sports and will be unable to open next year if voters do not pass on April 26 a property-tax increase they rejected on March 8, according to Superintendent Tedd R. Morris.

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