Education leaders weigh in on free preschool, community college proposals – School News Network

Multi-district — Staffing remains the biggest issue on local education leaders’ minds as they prioritize budgets for the year ahead and beyond, while considering possible impacts of the state’s proposed education budget.

Kevin Polston, East Kentwood

While a final plan for the budget is months away from receiving Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s signature, area superintendents and education leaders weighed in on its key areas: free preschool and community college for all, a 2.5 percent per-pupil funding increase, and continued investment in mental health supports, tutoring, and teacher recruitment and retention.

“As education leaders, we are appreciative of the investment Governor Whitmer has made into public education. This budget continues on this trend of strong investment, and we look forward to being a partner in refining the budget as the process unfolds,” said Kentwood Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Polston.

Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Leadriane Roby said the proposed increase in per-pupil funding is “wonderful news.”

“It means more funding to do the things we need to do to provide them the education they deserve,” Roby stated. “Competitive wages for teachers and staff, technology upgrades, and support for our young people who need an extra boost to achieve success are all more attainable when schools are more properly funded.”

‘There aren’t counselors to hire. There are not social workers to hire. There’s just nobody out there in those jobs. Early childhood is also a struggle, trying to find early childhood teachers or parapros.’

— Kevin Philipps, Kent ISD assistant superintendent of administrative services.

Staffing is the Biggest Need

But as Polston considers the year ahead and beyond, much comes down to staffing and the need to continue building the pipeline of teachers and retaining talent. That prioritization comes with increased cost, he said.

“We’ve had employee costs go up as well, as we are trying to recruit and retain top talent,” he said. “All KPS employees are receiving a 4% raise, plus a step increase of about another 2.5%.”

Craig McCarthy, Thornapple Kellogg

Thornapple-Kellogg Superintendent Craig McCarthy and Cedar Springs Superintendent Scott Smith echo that sentiment.

“The 2.5% increase in per-pupil funding will ‘help’ the school district maintain its current level of operations,” McCarthy said. “However, the increase doesn’t offset the annual increases that schools face.”

He said nearly 85% of TK’s overall budget consists of wages, benefits, retirement and substitute costs.

“For TK schools, that annual increase is nearly 6%, which means we will need to utilize some of our savings to maintain all of our programs,” he said

Smith said staffing costs alone will likely increase between 4 and 5% at Cedar Springs.

“Price increases on goods and services impact schools just like everyone else,” he said. “People across the state are working hard to manage their budgets at home. We will have to get creative to make the numbers work. We will live within our means and do the best we can to support the academic, social and emotional needs of our students.”

Scott Smith, Cedar Springs

In the area of recruiting teachers, the state budget proposal allocates $175 million for continued support of the MI Future Educator Fellowship, a tuition-free program for college students to become certified teachers and for stipend payments for student teachers. It would also fund efforts to to retain and develop existing teachers through mentorship programs. It is a decrease, however, from the $370 million in the current budget allocated to support teachers.

“I’m pleased there’s still that placeholder for educator recruiting and retention. It’s good to keep it in the budget and keep it coming,” Polston said.

In preparation for free preschool expansion, Kentwood is building a new early childhood center as well as early childhood center space with eight new classrooms in a new elementary school. McCarthy said Thornapple-Kellogg plans to use one more classroom in its early childhood center for preschool students to allow for the addition of two preschool sections to enroll an additional 30 students.

“The governor’s proposal removes income as a barrier for Great Start Readiness Program (preschool) eligibility, so we will need to be extremely intentional in our collaboration with Kent ISD (which operates GSRP) regarding how this program is expanded and implemented,” McCarthy said.

A major issue when considering early childhood, mental health and tutoring investments is filling staff positions. Those challenges are being seen across the board, said Kevin Philipps, Kent ISD assistant superintendent of administrative services.

“There aren’t counselors to hire. There are not social workers to hire. There’s just nobody out there in those jobs. Early childhood is also a struggle, trying to find early childhood teachers or parapros,” he said. “To ramp up increasing free preschool quickly would be hard in a tight labor market. I think it’s a great idea; it’s just, I think it’ll take a little time to get to the point where it’ll be a reality.”

Kevin Philipps, Kent ISD

Also, he said, to help cover costs in the budget Whitmer is looking to re-allocate $670 million in funds saved by paying off billions in debt to the Michigan Public School Employees’ Retirement System.

“It depends if the House and the Senate will go along with that; and if not, it probably will impact the proposal for the preschool funding,” Philipps said.

As for students at the other end of their K-12 experience, McCarthy said free community college has the potential to positively impact many TK students by providing an avenue for an associate degree without incurring debt.

GRPS students already attend GRCC for free through the Grand Rapids Promise Zone. Several other area high schools also offer Middle College and dual-enrollment programs with GRCC.

“This opportunity could drastically reduce the amount of student loan debt the student would have when they graduate. That reduced debt load will help improve the student’s quality of life after college,” he said. “This may have an impact on our dual enrollment students as well, as their decision-making may change given the promise of two more years of tuition-free education.”

But Polston noted that the current funding source being considered to cover community college for all students is the state’s School Aid Fund, which he would like to see reserved for K-12.

“We want to engage in dialogue to maintain the School Aid Fund for K-12 if at all possible,” he said.

Roby also said she hopes new spending plans for free preschool and community college won’t lead to legislators losing sight of the need for adequate funding across the board. She said state school funding is still far from hitting “sustainable levels,” but she said Whitmer’s proposal is a step in the right direction.

“We aren’t in a position to divert funding away from the important work we are already struggling to do,” she said. “We hope it is a ‘both and’ as opposed to an ‘either or.’”

The Timeline Moving Forward

Dan Behm, Education Advocates of West Michigan

It’s the beginning of the budget process, noted Dan Behm, executive director of Education Advocates of West Michigan. So the budget will likely change as more information about revenues and shifting areas of need, priorities or unintended consequences of proposals become clear.

He said he believes the foundation grant increase will be approved.

“I would also say there’s solid evidence behind the 2.5% increase in per pupil funding … “Provided there isn’t some economic calamity for the state between now and June, I think there’s a good chance you could see that number be a little bit higher and some of these other programs end up on the cutting room floor to fund a higher foundation allowance.”

In May, the state will come up with a combined budget proposal from the House, the Senate, and the Executive proposals. A final plan is expected to be in place by late spring.

“That’ll be the one that’s pretty close to what the schools will really see,” Behm said.

Reporters Joanne Bailey-Boorsma, Riley Kelley and Alexis Stark contributed to this story.

Read more: 
Teacher shortage remains a major challenge in Kent County, beyond
Teacher shortage: ‘glimmer of hope’ on horizon

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