TRAVERSE CITY — Cindy Andersen-Schwartz begins every school year with a trip to the store.

She watched resources shrink in her second-grade classroom during her three decades at Traverse Heights Elementary School. This year she’ll need to spend at least $200 on basic supplies as budgets tighten districtwide.

Andersen-Schwartz wants to provide for students who struggle with reading or math, but she said there are fewer opportunities for professional development every year. She admits it’s a problem, but said it’s a small impasse that only scratches the surface of a much larger mess.

“(The state) talks about giving us more money and they just did give us a boost,” she said. “But every time they do that, they give more to the downstate districts too. We still stay way behind.”

Long-standing inequities in state education funding have created a host of dilemmas in school districts across the region. Nearly every district in northwest Michigan receives the minimum funding from the state.

Those districts — including Traverse City Area Public Schools — will receive $7,511 per student next year while some districts in southwest Michigan, in contrast, will rake in thousands more. That inequity creates stress for teachers and students alike, and has worsened in recent years, Andersen-Schwartz said.

Addressing the problem

“When you intentionally provide one school system with more resources than another, it’s inherently unfair,” TCAPS Superintendent Paul Soma said. “It’s discrimination. … If they discriminate based on zip code, somehow that’s OK. It’s ridiculous.”

Soma said inequity places added pressure on teachers as they sometimes work with outdated materials and diminished salaries. Additional programs can force budgets to stretch to the breaking point, and extracurriculars often fall victim to cuts.

“We’ll either have to cut, cut, cut or find ways to pay for the work that we’re doing,” Soma said. “I believe our staff has absorbed the brunt of these cuts, and I don’t think we should be looking at staff for that.”

The wealthiest in-formula school district in the state, Birmingham Public Schools, will take a foundational allowance of $11,984 per student at the start of the school year. That amounts to more than $4,000 more per-pupil than the state pays school districts that receive the $7,511 minimum.

And those dollars stack up.

Benzie County Central Schools, for instance, would take in about $6.7 million more annually if its revenue stream matched that of the downstate district. Suttons Bay and Kalkaska public schools would each generate about $7 million more every year.

TCAPS, where the student population nears 10,000 students, would have about $43.8 million in additional funding with an equivalent per-pupil revenue stream — plenty of cash to save Andersen-Schwartz from reaching into her own pocket to buy paper and crayons.

An uphill battle

Local superintendents and Michigan Department of Education officials have long recognized a need for change.

Proposal A, implemented in 1994, was designed to take pressure off local property taxes and divide the state’s education money equitably for every district. More than 20 years have passed, and thousands of dollars continue to separate the state’s minimum and maximum per-pupil payments. The gap has narrowed, but the Department of Education estimates dozens of schools still will close their fiscal year with a deficit.

A system called “2X” funding — which provides lower-funded districts double the base payment their better-funded counterparts receive — will provide schools with $120-increases per pupil for the coming school year. It will take more than 70 years to close the funding gap at that rate, and local education officials are tired of waiting.

Matt Olson, superintendent at Benzie County Central Schools, said Michigan’s teachers are “under attack” and he doesn’t plan to watch the battle continue from the sidelines. Olson wants to work with local legislators in hopes of spurring them into political action.

“I don’t think that people in (wealthier) communities would say they’re more valuable than others,” Olson said. “Proposal A was good in theory but it hasn’t lived up to its promise. I certainly don’t hold that against those other districts.”

A statewide initiative titled “Top 10 in 10” aims to rank Michigan’s educational offerings within the best-performing states in the country, said MDE Director of Public and Governmental Affairs, Martin Ackley. He said Michigan needs to create an improved system to elevate student achievement.

“Not only is there some gap in funding, but the funding needs to be targeted toward students that need the most help,” Ackley said. “Michigan should really look at investing more across the board.”

A $1,000 shortfall

Jason Jeffrey, assistant superintendent at the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District, said the inequity between district foundational allowances could be viewed as a civil rights issue. Funding increases during the past 20 years have been small and mostly absorbed by rising service costs, he said.

“There is certainly a huge gap in terms of the opportunities that students have …,” Jeffrey said. “I think the bottom line is that schools are operating at an inadequate funding level.”

A study prepared for the state and released last month by research firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates reinforces the need for change in Michigan’s school funding system.

The report finds that “notably successful” districts require base funding of $8,667 per student — more than $1,000 above the minimum. Additional money also is needed for at-risk, low-income students, English language learners and those with disabilities, according to the study.

Soma said he’s confused about the state’s need for a study to address the inequity.

“This isn’t a new problem,” Soma said. “This problem has existed every year since Proposal A was put in place. I find it very frustrating … . We’ve known for how many years about this inequity? And we needed a study to reach that conclusion?”

Measuring political weight

Education officials across the Grand Traverse region contend the statewide funding disparity is tied to political influence in the state legislature. Jeffrey, for example, said attaining equality can be difficult because northern Michigan has less representation in Lansing.

“I’m not sure there is enough political power there to change things,” Jeffrey said.

Michigan’s three highest-funded, in-formula school districts are in Oakland County. Gross Pointe Pointe Public School System and Ann Arbor Public Schools — ranked fourth and fifth — also are in southeast Michigan.

Glen Lake Community Schools Superintendent Sander Scott — although his district is out-of-formula and escapes some of restrictive funding measures required of in-formula districts — recognizes that political maneuvering can create inequity.

“The school districts in southeast Michigan, with a powerful voting block and some level of control over Congress, started to advocate for leaks in Proposal A,” Scott said. “… It really became highly politicized and those areas that garnered the most influence were really getting the better deal.”

Funding concerns are a state policy issue, but Scott said he doesn’t see a desire to narrow the gap by those in the position to actually make the changes. Inaction among state legislators results in inequitable funding, he said.

Soma mirrored Scott’s sentiments and said adequate funding is tied to political power.

“Where there are votes, generally that’s where policy has been made,” Soma said. “It’s the reason we’re always fighting against a strong political constituency behind the districts that are the best off.”

‘Stop studying and start acting’

State Superintendent Brian Whiston last week announced a “call for action” to improve funding for Michigan’s schools.

He said the state-funded Education Finance Study is a great starting point that highlights needs that policymakers should recognize.

Ackley said a report is due early next year from Gov. Rick Snyder’s 21st Century Education Commission that will look at funding issues and how “we can put together an improved system to make it go further.” Local districts can expect to have their voices heard, Ackley said.

Soma said TCAPS will have to get creative with revenue generation to soften the effects of inadequate funding. He said he wants to avoid the traditional approach of cutting the budget while looking for opportunities to improve student education.

“I totally support the adequacy study, but now we need to stop studying and start acting,” Soma said.

Kingsley Area Schools Superintendent Keith Smith said Proposal A has “outlived its useful life,” but he is optimistic that the state’s think tanks can create a working solution for increased equity in school funding.

“I think it’s time we roll up our sleeves and propose a new model,” Smith said. “But with any changes, there is a whole other round of winners and losers. Hopefully it will make it better tomorrow than it is today.”

Andersen-Schwartz said she wishes there was a reason to stay hopeful as she prepares for another school year with limited financial resources. Her students are able to thrive and test scores remain high, but tighter budgets always create stress, she said.

“Our kids are worth it too,” Andersen-Schwartz said. “Our education is worth the same as the downstate districts … . It’s gotten worse and worse. It’s just hard to make do with what we have, but we know our kids are worth more.”

Understanding Proposal A

Proposal A was designed to lower property taxes and divert school funding responsibilities to the state. The system aimed to equalize funding levels between local districts, but is widely criticized among Michigan educators as inadequate, underfunded and regionally disproportionate.

Before Proposal A (1993)

About 70 percent of school funding is generated through local property taxes. Home and business owners pay an average of 33 operational mills assessed at 50 percent of the market value of their properties. Local sources pay $5.9 billion each year; the state provides the remaining $2.6 billion.

Sixty percent of the four-percent sales tax benefits the state’s school aid fund. Two cents of every cigarette pack sold along with the net revenue of lottery proceeds is diverted to school aid. Revenue from a four-percent excise tax on liquor also supports local schools.

After Proposal A (1994)

About 80 percent of school funding is paid by the state through foundational allowances. $6.4 billion is eliminated from total K-12 funding and the legislature is given five months to create a new funding structure. Local sources pay $1.8 billion each year; the state provides the remaining $7.7 billion.

Sales tax jumps to six percent, with all new revenue diverted to the state’s school aid fund. A state education tax assesses the taxable value of all property at six mills, and every district must now levy 18 mills on non-homestead properties.

School funding is now tied to each pupil counted in a district. A minimum level of $4,200 was established with a target of $5,000. A “cutoff” point was set at $6,500 with additional cash able to be raised from local millage requests or ISD-level enhancement referendums.

Michigan’s ‘Top’ Schools

Newsweek compiles a list each year of the top-performing high schools in the nation based on academic achievement and college readiness indicators. Michigan earned 16 of 500 spots on the list this year. The following is a ranked list of those schools, complete with the per-pupil foundational allowance provided for the 2016-17 school year.

16. International Academy $12,064

26. Washtenaw Technical Middle College $7,511

60. Troy High School $9,015

139. Stoney Creek High School $8,164

141. Seaholm High School $11,984

152. Novi High School $8,539

163. Early College at Lansing Community College $7,511-$8,613*

251. Grosse Pointe South High School $9,924

268. Rockford High School $7,511

308. Northville High School $8,229

354. Frankenmuth High School $7,804

386. Oakland Early College $8,856

422. Berkley High School $8,029

440. Plymouth High School $7,511

*The Early College is a partnership with Lansing Community College and the Ingham Intermediate School District. The school receives the per-pupil amount from students’ respective high schools, ranging from $7,511 to $8,613.

Highest-funded schools statewide

Below are the top five highest-funded Michigan school districts with 5,000-plus students:

1. Birmingham Public Schools $11,984

2. Southfield Public Schools $11,031

3. Farmington Public Schools $10,105

4. Grosse Pointe Public School System $9,924

5. Ann Arbor Public Schools $9,230

Highest-funded regional school districts

1. Northport Public School District $8,968*

2. Leland Public School District $8,096

3. Frankfort-Elberta Area School District $8,050*

4. Central Lake Public Schools $7,871

5. Bellaire Public Schools $7,812*

6. Alba Public Schools $7,511

6. Elk Rapids Schools $7,511

6. Ellsworth Community Schools $7,511

6. Mancelona Public Schools $7,511

6. Benzie County Central Schools $7,511

6. Traverse City Area Public Schools $7,511

6. Buckley Community Schools $7,511

6. Kingsley Area Schools $7,511

6. Grand Traverse Academy $7,511

6. The Greenspire School $7,511

6. Forest Area Community School $7,511

6. Kalkaska Public Schools $7,511

6. Excelsior District #1 $7,511

6. Glen Lake Community Schools $7,511*

6. Suttons Bay Public Schools $7,511

6. Leelanau Montessori $7,511

*Out-of-formula districts are districts where local property tax generates more than the per-pupil, state foundation grant can provide.

Rankings are based exclusively on state foundational allowances.

Source: Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency