The largest obstacle in approving Michigan's budget was cleared Wednesday as the Republican-led Senate advanced the K-12 School Aid Fund budget, with deep cuts to both public schools and community colleges.
Michigan legislators are hoping to rush through the full state budget before the end of the Memorial Day weekend, in advance of a May 31 deadline requested by the governor during his State of the State address in January.
Under the plan, passing by a partisan 26-16 vote, schools face a $300 per pupil cut in the coming year, combined with $170 in per pupil cuts that was backfilled with federal funding last year. The budget also includes a $100 per student replacement for school districts which require their employees to fund 10 percent of their own health care costs.
The combined $470 per student cut represents a 6 percent loss in the minimum per-student foundation allowance from $7,316 to $6,846, according to the Associated Press.
"I think it is an appropriate budget," Howard Walker, R-Traverse City, said. "I'm not happy at all making cuts to the K-12 budget, but it is a reality considering the financial times."
Walker, however, points to some highlights of the Senate K-12 budget that differed from the governor's original plans, including avoiding a proposed 40 percent funding cut for libraries. The Senate also implemented $100 per pupil funding for all schools to help pay for the early retirement costs and an added $6 million for early childhood programs.
Democrats have voiced their opposition to both the school funding cuts and other budget measures such as taxing senior pensions, despite not having the votes in the House or Senate to slow the governor's budget plans.
"The budget if you look at it as a values document, it says that over schools, over pensioners, over the working poor, Michigan values tax cuts," Senate minority leader Gretchen Whitmer, told the Wall Street Journal.
Community colleges will also lose funding under the K-12 budget plan, which includes about $400 million in funding for higher education.
"We are going to experience a cut from the state of a little less than 4 percent. Given the state of the state's economy and the sacrifices people are making, we will certainly manage and continue to fulfill our role as one of the engines of the state's economic recovery," said Charlie MacInnis, public relations manager for North Central Michigan College.
A handful of Northern Michigan schools received a glint of fiscal hope Wednesday amidst the plans for cuts.
A conference committee report recommended the reinstatement of the declining enrollment grant for rural schools with enrollments lower than 1,550 students.
Small schools in remote districts throughout the state receive the funding when their average enrollment during a three-year period has declined.
Rep. Frank Foster, R-Pellston, had been advocating for the money to be returned for fiscal year 2011/12 to help prevent deeper cuts in the 107th House district, where he says $1.15 million was in limbo for schools.
"While our Legislature has been tasked with making some very difficult spending reductions this year," Foster said, "I have feared that Northern Michigan's schools were being particularly neglected in this budget process, and that we would see some schools close their doors because of the extent of the original proposed cuts."
If the conference report is adopted by the Senate, House and governor, it would mean the replacement of funding for the loss of about 40 students at Pellston Public School.
"Obviously at Pellston Public Schools that would be a sigh of relief for us," said Bill Tebbe, Pellston Public Schools superintendent.
According to the House Fiscal reports, Pellston would receive about $140,000 under the funding replacement.
Tebbe said the reinstatement was something his school has lobbied hard for to help fill a $675,000 shortfall.
Pellston put four teachers on lay off notice earlier this month and has considered cutting sports and other programs to balance its budget for next year.
"It was a ray of brightness for us, but we are still not enamored with the $470 (per pupil) cuts," Tebbe said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.