The Puzzle of Dexter’s School Funding Shortfall

I’m sitting at a Dexter Board of Education meeting last December watching the group E4DS (Excellence For Dexter Students) present a giant check to the Board for $45,000; money to enhance school programming. I think, “We pay taxes. Why do we need more money?”

I asked Dexter School Board member Dr. Julie Schumaker why there were people raising money for Dexter schools. “Everybody knows these are good schools,” I said. “How is it we don’t have enough money?”

“In the State of Michigan, Dexter is the ninth wealthiest school district based on per capita income,” she told me. “It is mind boggling to think we don’t have enough money for education. We are an affluent community but we are not allowed by state law to tax ourselves enough to provide superior education. This is how E4DS got started.”

Honestly, this didn’t make sense either. What I would soon learn is that school funding for Michigan schools is a dense and complicated issue. I wondered if there was a way to understand the issue in simple terms and then write it that way.

Dexter’s school funding distills down into two main points:

  1. How do we know how much funding we need?
  2. How is funding actually determined?

This first article, of a two-part series on school funding, will look at how the cost to educate a Dexter student is determined and how that compares to what is actually spent. Part two will examine who controls the allocation of education dollars for Dexter Schools.

A study released January 12, 2018, by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates (APA), and Picus, Odden and Associates (POA), titled Costing Out the Resources Needed to Meet Michigan’s Standards and Requirements was prepared for the Michigan School Finance Collaborative to assess the state’s educational financial needs. You can read the comprehensive 358-page report (yawn!) for yourself, or follow along as I summarize.

Full disclosure: I’m a sock puppet here. I have not read the full report. I needed help which came in the form of School Board member Dr. Julie Schumaker who, armed with her PhD in Educational Foundations and Policy from the University of Michigan, has the brilliance and drive to translate the terms, numbers and culture of school financing into language I could understand and pass along to you.

Very important statement here:

The collaborative study examined the resources needed for students, teachers, schools and districts to meet Michigan’s academic standards.

AOA and POA are nationally recognized experts in school finance issues with experience in examining school finance formulas and estimating the resources needed to meet state educational standards.

The study used three approaches in creating estimates for the level of funding necessary to provide all students with the opportunity to receive an adequate education.

  1. Evidence-Based (EB) approach. This approach uses information from research to define the resources needed for a typical school or district to ensure that the school or district can meet state standards.
  2. Professional Judgment (PJ) approach. This is one of the most widely used adequacy approaches.  It relies on the experience and expertise of educators in the state to identify the resources needed to ensure that all districts, schools, and students can meet state standards.
  3. Successful Schools/School District (SSD) approach. This approach determines an adequate per student base cost amount by using the actual expenditure levels of schools or districts that are currently meeting or exceeding state performance objectives.

What follows is synopsis of the in-depth study Costing Out the Resources Needed to Meet Michigan’s Standards and Requirements as it relates to Dexter Community Schools.

Highlights from the study found that:

  • Currently most Michigan school districts receive approximately $7,600 per student.
  • In addition to the base per-pupil cost of $7,600, a percentage of the base cost should be provided for special education, English language learners, students living in poverty, and to provide career and technical education.
  • Michigan districts receive $700 million less than what is needed for total educational funding.
  • School funding should take into consideration district size, geographic isolation, and transportation costs.
  • The comparable wage index for educators and staff should be used to account for cost of living differences.
  • Pension legacy costs should be fully funded in addition to base cost per pupil.
  • On a national average, Michigan ranks near the bottom in student performance.

Resources needed to provide an adequate education:

  • Full day preschool for all 3 and 4-year-olds.
  • Student to teacher ratio of 20:1 in K-3, and 25:1 in grades 4-12.
  • High level of student support provided by counselors, social workers, and psychologists for all students: 1 counselor for every 450 students in grades K-5 and every 250 students in grades 6-12.
  • Nursing support and/or health aides to provide for necessary medical care and monitoring: 1 nurse for every 750 students.
  • Time for teacher planning, collaboration, and professional development with instructional coaches: approximately 25% of teacher time devoted to these activities.
  • Before and after-school programs and summer learning opportunities.
  • Technology: each student has a device such as a tablet or Chromebook.
  • Extra resources to provide more instructional time for struggling students.

The study recommends a $9,590 base cost to educate a K-12 student in Michigan excluding transportation, food and capital costs such as new facilities (Dexter Schools receives $7,905 per student this year).

Based on the study, AOA and POA recommended the following increases over and above the $9,590 base cost per student.

  • +$973/per student for transportation.
  • +$3,356 additional for low income students.
  • +$4,795-$6,713 additional for English language learners.
  • +$6,713-$11,028 additional for mild to moderate special education students.
  • +$959 additional for career and technical education students.

The Bottom Line:

With the recommendations of the study taken into consideration:

  • $43,549,911 is what Dexter needs to ensure that all students meet state educational standards.
  • $28,655,625 is the funding Dexter receives.
  • $14,894,286 is the shortfall.

The school bond passed last August can only be used for capital improvements and fixed assets such as building a new elementary school. The bond money cannot be used for school programming.

Given the State’s required educational standards and the fact that the money they allot for education falls well short of what is needed to meet those requirements, Dexter Community Schools does a remarkable job in managing their resources.

This shortfall is what E4DS is addressing in their fundraising. The task may appear daunting, but along with raising funds, the group is hoping to raise awareness.

In Part Two of this series, we’ll look at how available funding is determined and the limited options available to increase it.

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