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Education is a big issue in northern Michigan, whether we're reporting on school funding issues to breakthroughs in the classroom.

Lacking guidance from state, rural schools Up North worried about the basics

Max Johnston
Interlochen Public Radio

Michigan schools are preparing for some of the deepest funding cuts in nearly three decades. Some small rural school districts Up North hope to avoid layoffs or cut programs.

They’re more worried about the basics, like bussing, hiring and cleaning.

Uncertain future

Michigan lost billions of dollars in tax revenue during the pandemic. Schools that normally rely on that revenue will have their budgets slashed likely for years to come.

Nobody knows how much money schools will have, when students will be back or how many will show up.

But they do know a few things.

“We know that the forehead reading thermometers are going to be necessary, we know that hand sanitizer is going to be necessary, we know that masks are going to be necessary,” says Marlen Cordes, superintendent of Kaleva Norman Dickson and Bear Lake School Districts.

Credit Kaleva Norman Dickson Schools Facebook
Graduates of Kaleva Norman Dickson Schools celebrate. Picture was taken before the pandemic.

Both of Cordes’ districts cover rural areas near Manistee with only a few hundred students between them. He says about 80 percent of them rely on free or reduced-cost lunches.

Transportation problems

Even though the budget cuts are steep, Cordes thinks his districts will be okay. They prepared the year’s budget without drastic measures like layoffs.

But he’s very worried about their buses. Most school districts in Michigan spend about $500 per student on transportation.

“At [Kaleva Norman Dickson] it’s anywhere between 700 and 1,000 dollars per student just for transportation,” Cordes says.

He says before COVID-19 they barely had enough bus drivers to pick up students across both districts, which span over 300 square miles.

He’s worried if students are required to social distance on the bus, the district may have to double their bus runs just to get everyone to class.

And he doesn’t know how he’ll pay for it.

“Now we are really committing major resources to that,” Cordes says. “If we had to double those bus runs I think we would definitely see some negative consequences the following year.”

The teacher shortage may only get worse

Superintendent of Crawford AuSable Schools Justin Gluesing also thinks his district may avoid layoffs by stalling some programs.

But he’s really worried about schools having enough teachers in the years ahead. There’s already a nationwide teacher shortage as less people enter the field.

Now with so few districts hiring, Gluesing says there may be even less incentives to become a teacher.

“If you’re not filling those positions where are those applicants going? And are you going to be able to find them on the other side of this?” Gluesing says.

Cleaning up after students

Jessica Harrand runs Buckley Community Schools, which is unique in that the entire district is housed in one building.

Credit Buckley Community Schools

She says, normally that’s a plus as they can pool resources across different grades.

But with new rules expected for cleaning and social distancing, Harrand now worries about all those students in one place.

“We’ve put in water bottle filler stations so kids aren’t putting their mouths on things, we’ve ordered the sprayer machine that will sanitize large spaces quickly,” she says. “Standard procedures of how often we’re washing door knobs and phones, those will increase from end of the day activities to several times a day activities.”

COVID-related regulations may create more problems. For example, what if schools can’t have as many students in a cafeteria?

“You have a whole host of new problems if you start eating in classrooms: the carpet, the spills, the food spoiling, the supervision of the students cause they’re all split up,” she adds.

Still so many unanswered questions

As far as solutions go no one fully knows yet what’s going to happen with Michigan schools. Some superintendents worry deliberations over the state’s budget could stretch into the fall.

State Sen. Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City) is on the Senate’s education budget subcommittee.

He says they can’t answer all the questions on things like buses or cleaning, but they can get some money to districts for immediate concerns like online learning.

“We’re gonna try to get something so that local units of government and schools have an idea, but it won’t be perfect,” he says.

There’s been lots of talk of federal money to save the day, but Schmidt says Michigan schools can’t bank on that.

“We can’t count on the federal government on what they’re going to do or when they’re going to do it,” Schmidt said. “We unfortunately are going to have to tighten our belt, work hard to get our economy moving forward … to take care of those things like K-12 education.”

Governor Gretchen Whitmer says she’ll release a “Return to School Roadmap” on June 30. In a press release, she said it will have detailed guidance for next school year.

Max came to IPR in 2017 as an environmental intern. In 2018, he returned to the station as a reporter and quickly took on leadership roles as Interim News Director and eventually Assignment Editor. Before joining IPR, Max worked as a news director and reporter at Michigan State University's student radio station WDBM. In 2018, he reported on a Title IX dispute with MSU in his story "Prompt, Thorough and Impartial." His work has also been heard on Michigan Radio, WDBM and WKAR in East Lansing and NPR.