Published Online: February 18, 2010

Mich. Education Dept. Seeks Reform Office Funds

The Michigan Department of Education said Wednesday it needs $2.2 million over the next 18 months to set up and staff a school reform office required by state law.

The new law requires the department to identify the lowest-performing 5 percent of the state's public schools by Sept. 1. Roughly 170 to 200 schools on the list would be placed under the supervision of the yet-to-be-established reform office. Some of them could be taken over by the state if their proposed academic turnaround plans are rejected.

State schools superintendent Mike Flanagan said the department needs $500,000 by April to fund the 14 new positions at the office, and would need $1.7 million more for the new budget year that begins Oct. 1. The requirement for more staffing comes as the state already is struggling to preserve schools funding.

"There's no one in the department to do the important work these new laws require," Flanagan told a legislative subcommittee discussing school budget issues.

Michigan lawmakers passed several reforms late last year in the hopes of winning money from the Obama administration's Race to the Top competition. The state will add more charter schools, raise the dropout age to 18, create an alternative teacher certification program and make several other changes.

Michigan has applied for more than $500 million in Race to the Top grants. There's no guarantee the state will win the reform money. Flanagan reasserted Wednesday that the changes were necessary, regardless of whether it brings the state more federal cash.

Michigan already is struggling to pay for its public schools system. Schools are losing $165 per student this fiscal year, dropping the minimum amount districts receive to $7,151 per student.

Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm wants to avoid further school funding cuts in the next fiscal year, but a drop in the tax revenues that go to the state's school aid fund will make that difficult.

Granholm has proposed lowering the state sales tax rate from 6 percent to 5.5 percent and expanding the tax to cover some other services. That would raise more than $500 million for schools next fiscal year, while allowing the state to start phasing out a surcharge on the state's main business tax.

Granholm's sales tax proposal has gotten a frigid reception from lawmakers. House Republicans called it dead on arrival. Democratic House Speaker Andy Dillon says tax increases should be a last resort and he'll look at money-saving budget changes first.

Those ideas may be identified and acted on within 60 to 90 days, Dillon said. The ideas could include Dillon's plan to consolidate public employee health plans, working with state vendors to save money on contracts and reviewing tax loopholes or credits.

Dillon said it would be "ideal" to hold school funding level next fiscal year.

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