House Democrats Try to Preserve Local Control of School Districts

Lawmakers offer amendments to bills that would fast-track state takeover
Thursday, April 23, 2015

LANSING — State Representatives Robert Wittenberg (D-Oak Park), John Chirkun (D-Roseville) and Pam Faris (D-Clio) worked to protect local school districts from state takeover with the so-called “early warning” legislative package. The legislators offered amendments in the House Financial Liability Reform Committee to House Bills 4325 and 4327, two bills in the six-bill package, aimed at giving schools more tools and local input to deal with fiscal distress. Republicans rejected all the amendments, and the bills passed the House today.

“Providing a system to identify a financial emergency early is a good idea. The problem is how these bills handle it,” said Wittenberg, Democratic vice chairman of the House Financial Liability Reform Committee. “Instead of providing additional tools to help districts get their financial houses in order, this legislation just fast-tracks the state’s ability to take districts over. The state should be offering solutions for struggling districts instead of merely highlighting their problems.”

HBs 4325-4330 create the early warning system, change the format of deficit elimination plans and revise the protocols for putting a school district under emergency management. The bills create burdensome reporting requirements and, rather than empowering local schools or intermediate school districts (ISDs), gives more authority to the appointed state treasurer and could make it easier for the state to impose an emergency financial manager.

“School districts facing financial crisis should get extra attention and specialized support to help them get back on track,” said Faris, a member of the Financial Liability Reform Committee. “Instead of offering support and working with elected school boards and the ISD, this package will give the governor’s appointees more power and line up districts for emergency manager takeover.”

House Democrats offered the following amendments, each rejected by Republicans on the committee:

  • Expanding the use of sinking funds, allowing schools to use them for purchases such as technology, busing or security
  • Requiring school board members to undergo training on issues such as governance, public school financing, fiscal responsibility and ethics
  • Establishing a system in which schools in financial distress can ask for technical assistance from the ISD before a deficit elimination plan or emergency manager is imposed
  • Mandating that the state pay for the increased costs associated with compliance of the legislation
  • Protecting core curriculum from budget cuts

“My fellow Democrats and I have been fighting against years of underfunding education. Fewer schools would be struggling with their finances if they had the resources to succeed,” said Chirkun, also a member of the committee. “Unfortunately, House Republicans would rather streamline the takeover process at the expense of local control and — more importantly — students and their families.”