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Commentary: Five Easy Questions to Ask School Officials

While the state Legislature debates Gov. Rick Snyder’s $300 per-pupil school aid cut, many public school and union officials have been making the rounds in the media. For many Michigan residents, five easy questions can help make sense of the issue — and reveal where school districts really stand financially.

For starters, here are some examples of the one-sided information presented by the public-school establishment, contrasted with the actual facts:

  • Rochester Schools claimed a cut of $28 million in the last decade; its overall general fund expenditures grew by over $48 million.
  • Utica Community Schools said they cut $65 million since 2002; audit reports show they will spend $53.5 million more in 2011 than in 2002.
  • Midland Public Schools vouched for a cut of $19 million “over the last decade.” But general fund expenditures climbed from $75.1 million in 2000 to $83.8 million in 2010, despite a student enrollment drop from 9,484 in 2001 to 8,466 in 2011.
  • Saline Schools claimed a cut of $6.8 million over three years; records show the district’s total general fund budget actually grew by $600,000.
  • East Grand Rapids sent a letter to legislators claiming to have cut $3.5 million since 2006; its budget grew from $23.8 million to $28.1 million.
  • The Godfrey-Lee Schools superintendent claimed to have just cut $1.4 million; the district’s website shows it spent $2.3 million more in 2011 than 2010.
  • Bay City Schools said it had reduced spending by $24.6 million since 2000; records show the district actually spent $5 million more in 2011 than in 2000.
  • Coleman Schools claimed state government wanted to "cut and cut and cut"; in the meantime, the district has lost 23 percent of its students while spending per pupil increased by 23 percent.

While some school administrators argue that this is merely “a matter of semantics,” for Michigan residents, this information has made it difficult to sort out fact from fiction. To help simplify what can often be an overly complex problem, here are five easy questions anyone can ask their school officials.

1.       Has your district’s overall spending increased over the past decade?

If the district claims to have “cut” by a certain amount, these “cuts” may be covered up by increased spending in other areas.

2.       How much money per pupil did the district receive 10 years ago?

3.       How much money per pupil does the district receive today?

For some districts, it may appear that spending has stagnated or even been cut. However, if a district has significantly fewer students today than in the past (see the example of Midland Public Schools above), overall funds may have decreased while per-pupil spending has risen.

4.       What are the district’s teachers paying toward their health care?

In 2009, public school teachers in 300 Michigan districts paid nothing to the costs of their own health insurance premiums. In fact, the average contribution for a teacher’s family plan is 4 percent, while the Michigan private-sector average is 21 percent, and the average for federal employees in Michigan is about 25 percent.

5.       What is the average salary of a teacher who has been employed by the district for 10 years or more?

Automatic step increases can bring significant pay raises very quickly. See: The Salary History of a Michigan Public School Employee.

Nearly all public school collective bargaining agreements have a “single salary schedule” (or “automatic step increases”) for teacher compensation. The schedule builds in automatic pay raises for employees based only on longevity of employment and the education degree-level achieved. According to Michael Van Beek, the director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, “Essentially, this means that teachers would receive a pay increase for every year they remain employed by the district, regardless of their students' performance, the district's financial situation, or the conditions of the state's economy.”


As the state budget deadline approaches, and the debate in the legislature continues to heat up, it is increasingly important for Michigan citizens to have all the facts in a simple, concise way. It should also be noted that some districts are using their funds more wisely than others. With these five easy questions for every school official, taxpayers will more easily be able to sort out the difference.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.