20 Years Later: How Kalkaska's Schools Transformed State Education Funding

Mar 27, 2013

School districts across Michigan are making cuts again as lean times continue for public education.

Yet this week also marks the anniversary of a revolution in education that started in Kalkaska. Twenty years ago, Kalkaska Public Schools started their summer vacation in March. It was a protest against cutting more programs to stay open.

The decision led to dramatic change in the way schools are funded in Michigan. But now there’s a feeling that schools are back where they started.

Cutting band. Cutting busing. Cutting sports.
Many public schools had been slashing band, busing and sports from the budgets before 1993. But Kalkaska school officials decided back then they’d had enough. After voters turned down tax increases to erase a deficit, administrators took the unprecedented step of chopping off the end of the school year to balance their budget.

Kalkaska School Leaders Protest
So 20 years ago, they closed their doors two-and-a-half months before the traditional summer vacation.

“The school board was united in creating an atmosphere of quality versus quantity,” said retired Superintendent Doyle Disbrow, who led the charge. He and the school board took both credit and blame for the unusual move.

Then-Governor John Engler combed the books to find a way to keep school open for the 2,300 Kalkaska students. There was even talk of a state-appointed emergency financial manager for the district, like the ones running a handful of schools in Michigan today.

Prom In March
When the final half-day came on Wednesday, March 24, 1993, NBC’s Today Show and other national media, as well as hundreds of teachers from around the state, saw the kids off.

Kalkaska teachers were told to let reporters into their rooms, and then go about their business, said Nadine Holzbauer, who was giving her Spanish students their final exam on that last day.

“This group of two or three people came in and they had this big boom mic,” she remembered. “The boom mic came down and they were recording some of my kids’ answers and things and then they left, and I said, ‘What station are you from, so my kids can watch it?’ They said, ‘We’re with Peter Jennings and ABC World News Tonight.’”

Holzbauer said the seniors felt robbed of that last, magical year, not to mention track and other spring sports. And they laughed about going to prom in their winter boots.

“It was sad because kids were having the prom in March,” she said. “And the kids today call themselves – the seniors – the Class of 92 and three-quarters, because they didn’t get to finish the year.”

Move Leads To Statewide Funding Reforms
“No More Kalkaskas” became a rallying cry and a year later, Michigan voters passed Proposal A, which changed the way schools are funded. Funding was now handled largely by the state through an increased sales tax.

It took away the need for districts to constantly ask voters to raise their property taxes and began to tighten the gap between rich and poor areas in the amount of tax money spent per student.

Jim Pavelka, superintendent at Allegan County Intermediate School District at the time and later head of Traverse City Area Public Schools, said financial disparities between schools had been growing but it took something dramatic to spark action.

“The rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer as we started into the ‘90s, and then Kalkaska shut down and people got serious about some kind of equitable funding process,” he said. “And Proposal A was a very good process until it was tinkered with in later years.”

Calls For More Reforms Today
Pavelka says the early promise of equity has not been fulfilled. At first, Proposal A allowed for poor districts’ funding to grow at twice the rate of the richer schools. However, wealthier districts later pushed through an amendment that allowed their funding to grow more quickly than schools spending less.

That amendment was removed after a few years, yet since the recession the state has not been taking in the money in sales tax to keep up with expenses. Now, Pavelka says, the division between have and have-not schools is about back to where it was 20 years ago. He’d like to see another overhaul, but doesn’t see it happening anytime soon; and certainly not as the result of a bold stroke like Kalkaska took back then.

“I tend to have a lot of internal fortitude and I’m not sure I’d do it. There are a lot of risks involved,” Pavelka said.