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Published: Friday, 6/25/2010

Michigan rally calls for more school funds


LANSING - Frustration with public school financing in Michigan surfaced at the state Capitol on Thursday as thousands of teachers and supporters rallied for long-term, stable funding.

Schools appear safe from further state aid cuts for at least the next several months because of better-than-expected revenues coming into the state's school aid fund. Lawmakers have even discussed proposals that might lead to schools receiving an additional $10 or so per student this summer.

But teachers say a budget that holds schools harmless or gives a small increase for a short period won't prevent continued cuts in local districts. Recent years of budget problems and reduced or flat state aid, along with declining student enrollment, have led to layoffs and program cuts at several Michigan districts.

Those problems are continuing this summer.

"The kids are our future," said Amy Blonde-Cammet, a teacher from the Birmingham school district who attended the Capitol rally held by the Michigan Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. "If we want a bright future for everyone, we need to ensure that for our kids. If you keep cutting, how is that providing for them?"

Some of those attending yesterday's rally said they aren't sure what the public would or wouldn't support as a long-term funding fix for public schools.

Union leaders have lobbied for tax increases - such as the expansion of the state sales tax to some services that aren't now taxed - or the ending of tax exemptions for certain businesses or products to boost and stabilize the school aid fund.

Some lawmakers are upset with the union for opposing recent state laws aimed at saving schools money through retirement system changes. The union has sued to stop a requirement that school employees pay 3 percent of their salaries into retiree health funds starting July 1. The case is pending in a state court.

The union is not challenging the other portion of the program, which gives slightly sweetened pension benefits to school employees retiring this summer.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop said that lawmakers have protected school funding while proposing to cut most other state programs in this year's budget.

"Whether you're a Republican or a Democrat in this town, you've always prioritized the education community," Mr. Bishop said. "For anybody to come up here and suggest that we don't prioritize the school community is outrageous."

Senate Republicans have proposed using a portion of the state's school aid fund surplus to help pay for other education-related programs, such as community colleges, in this year's general fund budget.

The state's general fund - which pays for programs not connected to K-12 schools - has a shortfall of at least $300 million for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30.

Democratic House Speaker Andy Dillon said this week he's against using the school aid surplus to help plug holes in this year's general fund.

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