The end of the school year is always a busy time for students, parents, teachers, and other personnel working in Michigan’s public schools. Add in the disruptions caused by the pandemic over the past year, and the end of the 2020-21 school year seems more chaotic than normal. Among the hustle and bustle of getting through lesson plans, year-end award ceremonies, graduations, and staff retirements, the Citizens Research Council recently was able to bring its deep public policy background and K-12 education content expertise to a timely and informed discussion around U.P. schools’ plans for summer programming and the coming school year this fall.
On Thursday, May 26, the Citizens Research Council co-hosted, with Northern Michigan University’s Rural Insights program, an online discussion of important K-12 education finance issues facing U.P. school districts as they wrap-up the current academic year and prepare for the next. The program included a short background presentation by the Research Council’s Craig Thiel focusing on all the new federal education funding pouring into school budgets. After the presentation, two U.P. district superintendents joined the online event to add their on-the-ground perspectives during a moderated question and answer session.
The event was recorded and can be viewed here. Additionally, we highlight some of the key take-aways from the presentation and the panel discussion session.
My presentation highlighted how, with Congress’s recent approval of a third stimulus package, the federal government has injected over $6 billion into Michigan’s public schools since last year’s CAREs Act and why this investment is changing the fiscal landscape for many districts. The unprecedented federal aid, coupled with a healthy state education budget (state revenue collections continue to beat estimates), paints a much brighter fiscal picture for many district budgets compared to last year at this time. That is a good thing because right now it is budget time.
The pandemic did not create the fiscal havoc on school budgets that was originally thought as early dire fiscal predictions did not materialize. Still, school boards and administrators face some weighty budget decisions coming out of the pandemic. First, elected and appointed school officials are planning and developing budgets to offer full, in-person schooling in the fall in the safest and healthiest environment possible. Many districts operated remotely for much of the current year. In the more immediate future, officials are planning how to use this summer, before the start of the next school year, to help students regain some of the lost learning experienced during the pandemic.
Also, beyond the academic services, schools are making student social, emotional, and mental health much higher priorities in their fiscal planning post-COVID.
All of this will require financial resources. The presentation highlighted the scope and purpose of additional federal and state dollars to help districts, but showed that amounts vary considerably by program and across districts. While some districts will be resourced to meet all of their students’ needs, others may not find the additional money sufficient. Even with additional dollars available, many smaller and remote districts may face challenges securing the resources (e.g., additional and specialized staffing) to best help school children.
With the presentation and comments as the backdrop, two U.P. school superintendents were invited to join the online discussion and share their perspectives on how they intend to program the additional federal dollars and use the improving state budget picture to address student needs in the near- and long-term.
To kick off the discussion, superintendents were asked to comment on where their students were in terms of academics after one year of pandemic learning, and to share any observations about students’ current mental health condition. Mrs. Angie McArthur, Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District, commented that taking the academic and social/emotional “pulse” of the students is priority number one in the 19 districts she serves. There is no doubt, student learning has been impacted and will have to be a priority during the summer months through new and innovative programming supported by state and federal dollars. She highlighted that one-on-one student/teacher conferences have been a key tool in helping assess students, but cautioned that those students and families that did not engage with teachers and schools during the past year are going to need much more help.
This last point was echoed by Mr. William Saunders, Superintendent of Marquette Area Public Schools. He suggested that because Marquette was able to maintain face-to-face learning options throughout most of the year (outside of shut-down orders), many students stayed engaged in their learning. But, those that moved to remote learning and did not engage with schools and teachers, their educational progress has stalled. Mr. Saunders said his priority is re-engaging students that have become “disconnected.”
Moving to the topic of finances, Mr. Saunders discussed the ever-changing fiscal landscape for his district throughout the pandemic. While he acknowledged the importance of the new federal funding and steady flow of state dollars to the Marquette district, he noted that his FY2021 budget (adopted in Spring 2020) was based on a large state per-pupil aid reduction because of all the uncertainty surrounding state tax collections during the recession. In response, his district cut staff and programming to meet initial budget targets, but is now in a position of re-hiring staff and re-starting programs with the federal dollars. It takes time to bring staff back and re-engage programs, but the work is taking place in Marquette.
Mrs. McArthur commented on the demands of remote learning in U.P. schools, especially the challenges of broadband access for families. She noted that the 19 districts in the Eastern U.P. Intermediate School District (ISD) were fortunate to have a one-to-one ratio for student devices, but many still lacked reliable, affordable broadband access. Her ISD is working with economic development agencies and other governments to prioritize getting service to families to help children access school materials, regardless if instruction is in-person or remote.
The Research Council is a statewide public policy and public affairs research organization. But, that does not mean we cannot highlight some of the unique stories and challenges faced by residents from different parts of the state. This was exactly the motivation behind the May 26 online event co-hosted with Rural Insights. Public education is a policy area where students in the U.P. may have very different experiences from their peers downstate, especially those from urban areas. While time did not allow us to explore all of these challenges (and opportunities) during the one-hour session, attendees were able to get a first-hand account of what a number of U.P. districts are doing to help students regain some of what they lost over the course of the pandemic, using the historic influx of federal education dollars to do so.