Mich. Spec. Ed. Decision Spurs Funding Vetoes

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Michigan school officials didn't have much time to celebrate the state supreme court's ruling ordering the state to pay $211 million to 84 school districts for years of underfunding special education.

Before any champagne flowed, Gov. John Engler exercised his line-item-veto power last month, striking $304.6 million from the $9.2 billion K-12 education budget that state lawmakers had approved for fiscal 1998. Of the vetoed funding, more than $250 million had been earmarked to lower class sizes in urban areas and help schools with high percentages of at-risk students.

The veto was necessary to balance the budget and still comply with the court's July 31 decision, said John Truscott, a spokesman for Gov. Engler.

Now, even though the Republican governor has said that much of the vetoed funding for at-risk students will be restored, some districts are enacting cost-cutting measures.

In Lansing, for example, district leaders are implementing programs for at-risk students with caution, going ahead with a new, $1.5 million all-day-kindergarten program, but putting a freeze on new hiring. Other districts have made similar cutbacks, forgoing plans to hire additional teachers' aides and tightening their own nonsalary expenses.

Richard Halik

Echoing other educators, however, Lansing Superintendent Richard Halik said he trusts that funding will be restored later this month. "I don't think the governor will run the risk of the backlash from the state if the dollars don't materialize," he said.

It is state legislators who ultimately will appropriate money to pay the damages judgment in the special education case. They may also determine how much of the vetoed school funding can be restored when they return to session Sept. 23.

Long History

The high court's ruling ended a 17-year legal battle over funding for special education. A unanimous June 10 ruling declared that Michigan, by reducing the percentage it pays for special education, violated a state constitutional amendment that bars the state from forcing local governments to offer services the state does not pay for. But the court at that time left open the question of whether the state owed monetary damages to the 84 plaintiff districts. Michigan has a total of 525 school districts.

The 4-3 ruling in July settled on the $211 million damages award as the difference between what the state should have paid and what it did pay from school years 1991-92 through 1993-94, the last year before Michigan realigned its school finance system. A larger award, the majority opinion stated, would be a burden to taxpayers.

The court ordered that the damages be paid directly to the districts, which can spend the money on school programs or rebate dollars to local taxpayers.

"Declaratory relief coupled with an award of damages is appropriate in this case as a result of the prolonged 'recalcitrance' of the defendants," Chief Justice Conrad Mallet Jr. wrote in the majority opinion.

In the dissenting opinion, Justice James Brickley argued that the districts' relief inevitably punishes taxpayers.

Since the court order was issued, Gov. Engler has met with district superintendents to discuss restoring the vetoed funding, as well as the state's compliance with the decision.

"There's plenty of time to do this" before the legislature returns, Mr. Truscott said. "The goal is to have a solution by September 23."

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