BERRIEN SPRINGS — The state of Michigan can do more to help local school districts, but the state can’t and shouldn’t do everything. That was one of the messages Monday morning as school district officials from throughout Berrien and Cass Counties gathered for the annual legislative breakfast at Berrien RESA.
Legislators attending the annual gathering were U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, state Sen. Kim LaSata and state Reps. Aaron Miller, Brad Paquette and Pauline Wendzel. All are Republicans. School board members and school superintendents were able to ask education-related questions on a range of topics.
Legislators all spoke in favor of more local control including over the school calendar. “School boards, superintendents and parents should decide when school should start in the fall,” LaSata said. “We should just let the locals decide. The state doesn’t have to mandate everything.”
Several people asked questions about the state of education funding, including how to keep the School Aid Fund just for K-12 public school districts. While intentions were to earmark tax revenue under Proposal A solely for public schools, legislators since then have decided that money from that fund can also go to private schools and community colleges.
“It does say higher education is included as part of school aid in the state constitution,” said Miller, of Sturgis. “I’m all in favor of changing the constitution so there’s a firewall to get higher education funding out of the school aid fund. We need to change the constitution and it’s not something that can be done lightly.”
LaSata had a somewhat different take on the issue. “I’m trying to protect as much money as we can for higher education instead of it all coming from the general fund,” she said.
Miller, who will be term-limited in 2020, said that term limits are part of the problem in trying to solve long-term problems such as the continuous changes being made to the Michigan Merit Curriculum. “The chief deterrent to consistency is term limits,” he said. “The problem in doing anything in the legislature is a lack of institutional knowledge.”
School safety was another issue legislators were asked about, including expanding the OK2SAY emergency hotline program so that local and county law enforcement officials get the information, as well as the Michigan State Police.
Upton said he favors a number of efforts, including “red flag” laws that identify people with potential problems and take their weapons, after interviews and hearings. He noted that other states like Florida and Indiana have approved red flag laws, and added that Congress have increased funding for mental health and school safety programs.
“I talk about the culture found in schools,” Paquette, a former teacher himself, said. “It’s about more that having metal detectors and school resource officers that make students feel like they’re in jail. We need to bring more safety measures without making people feel like they’re in jail.”
All five legislators said they supported efforts to spend more on English language learners, economically disadvantaged, special education and career technical education programs. Upton noted that President Donald Trump signed the Christa McAuliffe Commemorative Coin Act Monday, in which part of the proceeds go to FIRST Robotics programs. Upton was a co-sponsor of the bill.
Wendzel said more needs to be done to fund CTE programs that train students for the jobs already available here. “I signed up for this gig but I have friends who moved away because they couldn’t find work here,” she said. “It starts with transportation and affordable housing. It’s going to be a long process but we’re working on it.”
The state lawmakers all expressed frustration over Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s recent line item vetoes of education-related items, including money for reading and career technical education programs.