This story continues our summer series looking back over the last 50 years in northern Michigan as we celebrate IPR’s birthday.
Few events reverberated as loudly as a decision made in Kalkaska in 1993. Then, as now, public schools were making cuts to get by. But Kalkaska decided it would be better to close early than do without band, buses and art. The decision sparked dramatic change in the way schools are funded in Michigan.
Quality over quantity
Twenty years ago, when a school district was short on money, it had to ask property owners to increase their own taxes.
In 1993, Kalkaska had already tried that a couple times and been turned down.
Before Doyle Disbrow took over, the school cut its budget for art, libraries and team sports. But under Disbrow’s leadership, the board decided to cut the calendar.
He’s retired now, and still believes in the board’s approach to the problem; which he says was to emphasize quality over quantity.
“Just because a school goes the 180 days and meets the 900 hours, does not guarantee quality,” he says.
So summer vacation started in March that year for the 2,300 kids in the district. The move caught the state’s attention, and Governor John Engler argued that a longer school year was more important.
Engler visited the district several times, bringing bookkeepers to look for a way to keep the doors open longer.
“We had money owed to our employees that was held in reserve to pay them over the summer,” Disbrow says. “He wanted us to spend all that money to stay open until May. The only problem was that the staff would’ve only been paid a percentage of their salary for that time.”
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.
Last Day Of School
The national media also took notice, so when the final half-day came on Wednesday, March 24, NBC’s Today Show and other national media, as well as hundreds of teachers from around the state, saw the kids off.
Kalkaska teachers, including Nadine Holzbauer, were told to let reporters into their rooms, and then go about their business. Holzbauer was giving her Spanish students their final exam.
“This group of two or three people came in and they had this big boom mic,” Holzbauer says. “And 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 says the seniors felt robbed of that last, magical year, not to mention track and other spring sports. They laughed about going to prom in their winter boots, she says.
“And the kids today call themselves – the seniors – the Class of 92 and three-quarters, because they didn’t get to finish the year,” she says.
But all of that attention did lead to change. “No More Kalkaskas” became a rallying cry and a year later, Michigan voters passed Proposal A. The referendum altered the way schools are funded. Funding was now handled largely by the state through an increased sales tax.
The New York Times called it a “revolution” in school finance. It took away the need for districts to constantly ask voters to increase their property taxes. It also 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 the head of Traverse City Area Public Schools – says 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,” says Pavelka. “And Proposal A was a very good process until it was tinkered with in later years.”
Whether the result of tinkering or changing times, headlines around the state this spring were reminiscent. Schools continue to make cuts. In Saginaw County, the small district of Buena Vista closed early this year, then reopened with help from the state. The Pontiac Schools almost shut early and Governor Snyder has appointed emergency financial managers for schools including Muskegon Heights.
Once again there are rallying cries for school funding reform.
In the 90s Proposal A did help level the playing field. But was the change worth it for Kalkaska schools? It's a question that now plagues Mel Cooke. In 1993 he was the school board president who lead the district to close early.
Now, he’s not so sure.
“I have mixed feelings about that because Kalkaska came out on the short end so badly with the passage of Proposal A and the rethinking of school financing,” Cooke says.
For one thing, the next year the state based its payments to Kalkaska on the shortened year. It took a few years for the district to catch up again.
Disbrow understands the second-guessing. He agrees that Kalkaska suffered some negative effects from the decision, but that doesn’t nullify the good that came from it.
“Yes, we were penalized, but that doesn’t mean that it was worse than had we gone the rest of the year and put our district into deficit,” Disbrow says. “Remember, we balanced our budget.”
Ironically, Kalkaska is not struggling like a lot of school systems right now. It has a budget surplus and just completed a voter-approved, $19 million, construction project with new classrooms, a new gymnasium and auditorium. But the district also got a black eye that year, which some say is still healing.
Disbrow blames it on politicians and national media that implied shady bookkeeping was the problem.
And job applicants who were toddlers at the time are dimly aware of something in Kalkaska’s history, though they don’t know what it is, says high school principal Dale Kasza.
“It’s too bad though, because it’s been 20 years down the road now, and there are a lot of good things that are happening here and we’re trying to get rid of that stigma,” he says. “Things are going really well for us at this time.”
Despite the sadness at the time, counselor Nadine Holzbauer says the students don’t seem to have suffered long-term consequences of the early closing.
“Kids were worried about going to college. Am I going to be on a par with the other incoming freshmen? Am I going to be behind because of the closing?”
She’s still in touch with several of those former students and said they’re doing fine and many wear their Class of 92-and-three-quarters label like a badge of honor.