TRAVERSE CITY — Wednesday is Count Day for the state’s 539 school districts, 297 public school academies and 56 intermediate school districts.
That is the day administrators and staff especially want students in class, because the number of students enrolled in the district directly affects how much state funding the school receives.
School officials have operated without a firm figure on what their per-pupil funding would be because of the budget impasse at the state level. That matter was expected to be cleared up before the midnight deadline on Tuesday when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was set to approve more than $15.2 billion in school aid that included an increased minimum amount per pupil — up to $8,111 from $7,871 — and up to an additional $120-$240 per student through the 2x formula.
Whitmer’s original proposal included nearly $15.4 billion in state school aid and a $120-$180 per-pupil increase. The House proposed $15.8 billion in school aid and $90-$180 per pupil, while the Senate called for $15.2 billion in school aid and $135-$270 per pupil. It the first time in nine years a state budget was not set before lawmakers recessed for the summer.
School districts are four months into their fiscal year, and most in the area will receive the minimum amount per student. Many, like Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District Superintendent Nick Ceglarek, are still waiting for answers and clarity on how much funding they can expect when the first state aid payment is set to hit later this month.
“How does any other organization start their year and move forward when they have to wait to determine what that amount is you’re going to get? Or determining how much funding you’re going to get based on how many students enter your doors on a particular day?” Ceglarek said. “I don’t know that it’s a perfect system. It’s a system we’re working with and trying to do the best we can.”
Districts have two count days per school year. One in October. One in February.
The stakes are higher come Wednesday than they will be in February because 90 percent of a school district’s funding is based on the October figure. Many school districts are stretched thin as it is when it comes to revenue and expenses, so school officials worry about declining enrollment and the effect it has on the bottom line.
Mike Carmean, Suttons Bay Public Schools superintendent, said he is expecting his student count to be down 10-20 students from last year. That could cost the district more than $162,000. Suttons Bay officials budgeted for just a $50 increase per student, and Carmean said the additional $190 added to his budget will help. But he said that money can “be eaten up real quick.”
Carmean called Count Day a “necessary evil” and wondered about the state’s ultimate goal when it comes to the practice.
“It seems like the state is always trying to get you in a ‘gotcha’ moment to take away something because you didn’t cross a T or dot an I,” he said. “That’s what’s frustrating. Sometimes you think you know the rules, and then something else comes up and they’ll zing you for a student or two or even more.”
Keith Smith, Kingsley Area Schools superintendent, said the process has become “so complex and so burdensome” that it could use some softening. Smith, however, recognizes that Count Day was put in place for a good reason when some school districts were fudging their numbers to get more money.
“Clearly, the honor system didn’t work, because that assumes everyone is playing with a set of rules,” Smith said. “Have we gone too far the other way? Probably. When you’re getting scrutinized for every five-minute increment, it makes it difficult.”
Smith said the auditing process of the Count Day numbers has also taken funding away from school districts that try different programs or deterred other districts from trying them at all.
One such example was Traverse City Area Public Schools’ virtual home-school program, the Northern Michigan Partnership. TCAPS will have to return nearly $2 million in state aid after a nearly yearlong battle with the state over how the students in the program should have been counted.
Christine Thomas-Hill, TCAPS associate superintendent of finance and operations, said the Michigan Department of Education has reclaimed that money but that the additional per-pupil funding this year, which will result in an additional $2.295 million, will help offset that.
“There’s going to be a minimal impact this year,” Thomas-Hill said.
A representative from Whitmer’s camp declined to comment on the governor’s intention to sign the school aid fund plan as presented, but said they will share any actions taken on the budget when they develop.
Ceglarek said he would have rather seen a budget with more revenue and one that removed higher education and community college funding from school aid completely, but he applauded the use of the 2x formula and additional funding for special education and English language learner students.
“It recognizes that students don’t come to us with a level playing field and do require some additional resources in order to ensure we’re meeting their needs,” he said.