Avondale Not Likely to get Help from Lansing

By Annette Kingsbury

Parents, teachers and the Avondale Board of Education got an up-close view Monday of the debate raging in Lansing over school funding.

Three legislators, one Democrat and two Republicans, addressed a forum called by the school board to discuss Governor Snyder’s proposed school-funding cuts. In a half-full auditorium at Avondale Middle School, the community learned that the district’s finances are likely to suffer under whatever version of the school aid budget is enacted.

Avondale’s position is precarious because it has been operating in a deficit for the last several years. The district has a state-approved deficit-elimination plan but is worried that it won’t be able to fulfill the plan if Snyder’s cuts become reality. That could open the door for an emergency financial manager and loss of local control.

The district hasn’t announced specific cuts for the 2011-12 school year, but Superintendent George Heitsch said he expects program cuts, larger class sizes and layoffs. Even if the district negotiates the 5-percent pay cuts and 20-percent health-insurance contribution the governor wants, Heitsch said the deficit will still growif funding is cut.

“We want to make sure we do everything we can to maintain local control,” he said. “I have a tremendous sense of urgency that we need to solve this problem locally.”

Under Proposal A, Avondale was one of several districts allowed to levy an extra millage in order to maintain its level of funding. As the state sent more money to poorer districts to level the playing field, districts like Avondale lost ground. The state attempted to make up the difference by appropriating extra funds, known as 20j; Avondale got $1 million per year. But the funding was vetoed by Governor Granholm in 2009.

“Had we had that 20j money, we would not be in deficit right now,” said Frank Lam, Avondale’s Chief Financial Officer. “Instead of looking at additional program cuts, additional layoffs…we’d be breathing a lot easier.”

While sympathetic, Sen. John Pappageorge (R-Troy) said there is a bigger picture to consider.

“The state is short $1.7 billion,” he said. “What we need to do, as painful as it is, is reduce the cost of government without sending anybody out the door. Now am I saying somebody’s getting paid too much? Absolutely not, not in the public sector. What I am saying is we’re going to have to tighten our belt to get through this.”

Rep. Tim Melton (D-Auburn Hills) said the problem is the governor’s plan to use the school-aid fund to help fund colleges. Without that, he said, there would be enough money in the fund to maintain current school funding.

“Proposal A was a promise to the school districts,” Melton said. “Things need to be reformed in education…but cutting what you don’t need to cut doesn’tmake any sense right now.”

One parent objected to the partisan tone of the debate.

“I felt like what I just heard was a political debate, and no one’s running for office right now,” she said. “I want to hear how this is affecting my children and everyone else in this room.”

Several parents wanted to know what they could do to get the ear of the legislature.

“We have a little gem here,” one parent said. “We have so much positive here. We want to know what we can do to preserve that … because what we have is a fabulous thing.”

Avondale Middle School math teacher Carol Czechowskisaid the legislature should allow voters to decide.

“This proposal is robbing children to really, in essence, provide money in tax breaks for businesses,” she said. “This is not just to children.”

Melton said residents need to contact their legislators at the personal level.

“There is so much to dislike about somethings that are happening that it’s hard to rally around something,” Melton said. “I think education is the thing to rally around. … It needs to be more heated and pointed.”

Avondale Middle School math teacher Carol Czechowski expressed her feelings by displaying a recent headline. The governor’s budget proposal, she said, “is robbing children to really, in essence, provide money in tax breaks for businesses.”

By Annette Kingsbury

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