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Posted on Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 5:58 a.m.

Forum on K-12 funding: Education must be a non-partisan issue

By Danielle Arndt


Ann Arbor Pioneer High School band director David Leach addresses a small crowd Monday at the First United Methodist Church at Green Wood. Leach; Steven Norton; behind him to the left; and State Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor; participated in a panel discussion on education funding.

Danielle Arndt |

Editor's note: A comment by Jeff Irwin near the end of this article has been edited for clarity.

The message of an Ann Arbor forum on K-12 education funding in the state of Michigan Monday was clear: Education must be reverted to a non-partisan issue.

A group of about 40 people gathered from 7 to 9 p.m. at the First United Methodist Church at Green Wood in Ann Arbor to learn more about proposed statewide education reforms, the financial challenges threatening school districts and what community members can do to help.

There were three panelists involved in the discussion at the church: Michigan Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor; Pioneer High School teacher and band director David Leach; and Steven Norton, a local schools advocate and the executive director of Michigan Parents for Schools, a nonprofit organization.

The panel was spurred on by a dinner chat FUMC Pastor Doug Paterson had with a former superintendent and by his continuous reading in the news about school districts struggling to stay open and enacting massive cuts to programs and services they provide to their students.

Although each panelist shared his personal perspective and experience with K-12 education funding in the state, they all stressed the most important component to changing the trajectory of public schools is changing the conversation — and doing so through frequent, perseverant and passionate community activism and engagement.

The panelists talked about Gov. Rick Snyder's lifting of the cap on charter schools and "cyber" charter schools and how that has hurt traditional public school districts. They talked about how the current Republican administration seems to be trying to replace human-delivered classroom instruction with technology-driven and online-based learning that will create a generation of adults who are good test-takers, but lack the ability to think, react, problem solve on the fly and work as part of a team out in the workforce or in everyday life.

"The vision of education that is coming out of an awful lot of this (legislation) is that transferring information and knowledge and facts into kids' heads is what we should be doing ... and machines can do more, cheaper than humans," Norton said.

Additionally, the panelists talked about how funding for schools has not kept up with inflation and that while Snyder and the Republicans are touting the increase they gave to districts in the budget that recently was approved, Irwin said the Ann Arbor Public Schools will receive just $5 more per pupil in this budget, when two years ago the district took a $470 per-pupil cut.


State Rep. Jeff Irwin, left, talks at a panel Monday evening while Steven Norton listens.

Danielle Arndt |

"We are going in the right direction, sure, but they are patting themselves on the back and doing a victory lap (for the $5 increase) and it's inappropriate," Irwin said.

But despite talk criticism of the current administration's policies, the panelists said ultimately, the focus cannot be on who is in office and how to get them out. Irwin and Norton both agreed education was not always as partisan of an issue as it is now, referencing the early John Engler era.

"We need to ... remind people of the values that cause them to care about education — the community, investing in the future," Norton said. "To be honest, we can't let the fate of our schools be controlled by partisan back and forth."

Irwin concurred. He said the state needs to invest in the fundamentals of prosperity, which education and high quality schools is one of the biggest contributing factors to an area's economic success and viability, he said.

Irwin explained there can be a benefit to being a Democrat during conversations with constituents about education because, generally, people tend to associate Democrats as believing government can work and being more willing to spend money on education. However, he said when there are problems in government and problems in school districts, both political parties are consumed with talking about the problems — Republicans about the problems with the governing bodies themselves and Republicans "go about trying to prove just how bad government can fail."

"That's where all the discussion goes. ... We don't talk about how our school system does work, how it is tremendous for our students," he said, adding that free-for-all, constitutionally-guaranteed, community-governed schools "are a tremendous American success story.

"It's a good investment. ... It's a solution that wins."

Norton said parents also cannot be "partisan" or biased toward only the cuts and reform policies that impact them directly. For example, he said people with a seventh- or eighth-grader can't only care about what is going to happen with middle school cuts or rally just for saving athletics because those people want their sons or daughters to be able to play high school sports to compete for scholarships.

"We need to come together to talk about it as a community. ... In the long run, the only way to present any permanent change is to push for measures in the best interest of all children in Michigan."

One audience member asked about Proposal A and whether it was a fallacy that the 1994 legislation was something voters and public schools advocates should try to repeal.

Irwin said eliminating Proposal A "is not a silver bullet" because the question then becomes what does the state replace it with? He said the legislation has done some of the things it was intended to do, such as establish more equity in funding throughout the state, despite disparities in income levels, property tax bases and a district's ability to pass increased taxes and raise revenue on its own.

"It's not that Proposal A itself is broken," Norton added in agreement. "But it has then laid control on the Legislature to answer the question of how and when to raise funds for education."

Danielle Arndt covers K-12 education for Follow her on Twitter @DanielleArndt or email her at



Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 10 p.m.

I applaud Mr. Norton's pointing out that parents who come to the table advocating only for their own child's best interests are part of the problem. It all sounded the same: "This (expensive) school/program/teacher is best for MY child, so do not cut it." Clearly cuts have to be made, but I saw no sense of fairness or willingness to share the hurt. I was surprised to see how uncaring these parents are for all but themselves and theirs. It is disgusting.


Mon, Jun 24, 2013 : 11:32 a.m.

I totally disagree with you. Advocating for something that you think is valuable to your child is your duty as a parent. Does that mean that you will get what you want in the end? Maybe not, but I would sleep better knowing I did what I could to save a good program. If you know of a different program that is valuable to you, say something! Its just that most BOE members seem to not really understand a lot of the day to day things that go on in the classroom. How can they make fair cuts when if they don't even know what things people think have value? Don't just sit at home and hope for this group to make the best choices. This is the group that brought us the behavioral gap for goodness sake!


Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 8:50 p.m.

As long as our political system remains polarized, practical policy will be ignored in favor of scoring some sort of political "victory." And that goes for both parties. Neither side attempts to build a consensus. It's become more important to defeat the "enemy" than to pass good legislation. If one party proposed a resolution stating that the sky is blue, the other side would argue. Unfortunately, it appears that it will remain like this until a viable third party option presents itself. But since the two major parties write election law, I'm not holding my breath waiting for that to happen.

Shawn Letwin

Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 6:04 p.m.

"Complaining about how hard one works or does not will not solve the problem." Absolutely correct! Making note of compensation practices that severely inflate the benefit at retirement by allowing accumulation of paid leave without restriction over 30 years to be paid out at the pay rate at 30 years and not the value generated over time is an issue based on a fact. To pay teachers extremely high salaries to coach (outside of the classroom) and then the school districts have to put funds into the retirement program for coaching is an issue based on a fact. To use the coaches salary as part of the formula for the retirement payout for a teacher is an issue based on a fact. I grew up in house of educators in Michigan and very familiar with the outside demands that can happen and that do not.. I did return to school to get a teaching certificate a few years ago but quit for the very reasons that @DonBee stated (5 graduates for every one opening). Then having recently substituted for 3 years in over 14 different districts in Washtenaw and Livingston (all grades, most subjects and at High Point and its' many associated outside locations). I noted facts, not opinions for the benefit of others. Enjoy, take care and be well.

Shawn Letwin

Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 2:59 p.m.

Some questioned the information I posted previously. As taken from the Dexter Teachers contract: -The normal work week shall be 35 hours. -Teachers shall receive three (3) paid leave days at the beginning of each school year, and shall earn one (1) day of paid leave for each month work to a maximum of thirteen (13) days per year. The yearly allotment of thirteen (13) days shall be accredited for available use at the beginning of each year, and may be used at the teacher's discretion, subject to the following guidelines. -All earned but unused leave days shall accumulate without limitation. -Sabbatical leave: A Sabbatical for a year and paid 1/2 year salary -Teachers will be allowed a maximum of three (3) days not charged to paid leave days...and an additional 3 paid leave days for settling affairs... Those are the major perks and there are many more mid, to minor perks filled throughout the contract. Per the DCS calendar for 2013-2015: Teacher days=181. As for the extra work time...there are some who do put in quite a bit more and others that do not ( PE, art, etc), let alone all of the planning time that teachers get on a daily basis to do their duties before they leave the school building. Here is the link to the contract in which I had read front to back and the ones before that:


Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 5:24 p.m.

Mr Letwin - Most teachers take homework home to grade, most teachers work on lesson plans in the evening, summer and weekends. While they only need to be in the building 35 hours a week - 181 days a year, the good ones work a lot more than that. That being said, I don't know a professional today who does not take work home and does not work on their job related work on the weekends. There is no such thing as a 40 hour full-time professional job anymore. Most people work closer to 60 hours a week in a professional position. Complaining about how hard one works or does not will not solve the problem. A couple of facts - Michigan turns out roughly 5 teachers for every position available in the state, so there is no lack of trained teachers. According to the American Federation of Teachers based on cost of living, benefits and salaries, Michigan is #2 in terms of the best place to work financially - other sites offer different positions, but none is out of the top 10, that I can find. I do want the very best in teachers in the classroom, but I have to wonder if our current tenure system and pay system actually do that for us.


Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 2:56 p.m.

This panel did not offer any solutions for public education. Thank you DonBee for discussing the real problem--you should have been on the panel! Gov. Snyder cares about education and is doing the best he can. Unfortunately, our system is broken. As others have commented, Michigan has lost private sector jobs. Young professionals are not staying here. We simply do not have the tax money anymore. The system must change. I'm tired of hearing that "teachers work more than a 40 hour week." So what? Everyone works more than 40 hours a week now. This is our economy now. I respect teachers but they are not sacred. A 3% pay cut is nothing compared to what other professionals have sacrificed especially when you still have a pension, 3+ months vacation and 90% of your health benefits paid by taxpayers. This cannot continue. We must have pension reform, teachers must pay more in health benefits and they must work longer hours. AAPS should take lessons from neighboring districts. The Ypsilanti-Willow Run district just added 27 work days for teachers: It can be done!


Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 3:03 p.m.

Oh yes...Snyder...the compassionate one that cares. That made me laugh out loud.

Dog Guy

Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 1:37 p.m.

That nonpartisan ship is a last refuge for out-of-power partyliners who have sunk their own boat.

Joe Kidd

Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 1:29 p.m.

I think there is no doubt schools should be properly funded but AAPS is an example of a train wreck based on decisions by elected board members who make mistake after mistake, like hiring a superintendent at a completely unjustifiable compensation package. I would like to see the state step and put restrictions on how much local communities can pay administrators. The gap between administrators and those who do the real work, here teachers, is absurd.


Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 1:23 p.m.

Proposal A has always been broken, taking money from good school districts and shifting it to bad ones, with nothing to show for it. Have Detroit schools improved since Proposal A was passed? It also eliminated local control over school budgets, shifting school politics away from the school districts and into the hands of Lansing politicians.


Mon, Jun 24, 2013 : 11:09 a.m.

I would like my money to be kept locally and not sent off to someone who chose to live in rural UP and then expects the same opportunities as a highly populated area.


Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 5:14 p.m.

ChrisW - I will tell you what, go into the UP and make that claim, as more students than ever qualify for college. Detroit has way more problems than funding, as shown by trial after trial of city, library, and school officials. Proposition A had a real impact on who runs the school budget, if it had not passed, more than likely it would be a federal judge handing out the money each year, not Lansing. Since there were several groups planning to file discrimination lawsuits in Federal court over the old system. Which would you prefer, your tax dollars directed by a Federal Judge, or locally elected representatives in Lansing?


Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 12:46 p.m.

Republicans in this state are so concerned about our children's futures that not one of them could even bother to show up and debate. Patting themselves on the back for a $5 increase to schools indeed!


Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 5:10 p.m.

John - Ann Arbor one of the most highly funded districts in the state only got $5 a student directly. They also got money indirectly from the state to cover the hole in the retirement fund, that they would have HAD to pay out if they had not gotten the funding from the state. The state just decided to skip the bookkeeping effort and move the money directly to the retirement fund. The raise in K-12 funding was just over 3% of the total budget a year ago. About the same percentage as the cut was 2 years ago. The difference is the schools at the bottom of state funding got more than the schools at the top of the funding. Since the intention of Proposition A in 1994 was to equalize funding, don't you think after 20 years, that we should act on that goal? Should not all children have an equal chance at a good education?


Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 3:29 p.m.

This event was not structured as a debate and no Republicans were asked to speak by the organizers. I happen to think that the Republican-dominated legislature saying "we need to make sure that even the best-off school districts get some money after paying the increased demands for teacher retirement funds" was an effort to produce greater equity throughout the state without completely betraying their political base. The overwhelming number of "hold harmless" districts in Michigan are majority-Republican communities in Oakland County. But which districts got the majority of the extra dollars being spent on education? The school districts which have been making do with thousands of dollars less per student than the rich districts like Ann Arbor or Bloomfield Hills.


Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 3:27 p.m.

were they invited? just asking.


Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 12:36 p.m.

How can it be non-partisan when one side thinks government should not have any role in educating our kids?


Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 11:38 a.m.

The very first thing these "education activists" would need to do in order to make education a non-partisan issue is to drop their assumptions of Republican / Snyder administration bad faith regarding education. The problems with Michigan's economy and education funding in Michigan were almost exactly the same under Governor Granholm. She achieved little but hand-wringing and teacher retirement fund deficits during her two terms in office. You may not like the new EEA, but the vast majority of Detroit parents have been desperate for an alternative that's even marginally better than their schools have been. The problem in Detroit is not a lack of money; they get more than Ann Arbor does per student when the Federal Title funds are included in both districts. The problem is that the school system and much of city government in Detroit is so corrupt. And to those people, like several of the speakers at this event, who repeatedly claim that they support high quality, publicly-funded schools for all, your actions speak so much louder than words. Your virulent attacks on charter schools and on-line classes that provide an affordable, practical, and yes, high quality alternative to students who would otherwise be trapped in failed, small rural, or poor-fit school systems appears to me as elitism, poorly masked by hypocrisy.

Usual Suspect

Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 1:38 p.m.

"The very first thing these "education activists" would need to do in order to make education a non-partisan issue is to drop their assumptions of Republican / Snyder administration bad faith regarding education." That crowd will never be able to do that. It's against their ideology.

Maria Huffman

Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 12:22 p.m.

Like I said, the issue is bipartisanship, not non-partisanship.

Maria Huffman

Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 11:31 a.m.

I think the solution lies more with bipartisanship, not nonpartisanship.

Shawn Letwin

Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 11:29 a.m.

"Education must be reverted to a non-partisan issue." Everything about this forum and panel was partisan and one-sided! Some see education just like "Mom, apple pie and America" dare anyone question it efficacy, process, systems. The system now produces wages that are in line with college educated peers in other industries (most making 30-40 to start and rising just below 100K over the years, but with burdensome legacy costs for health care and pensions. -yet they only work 180 days per year, -have all state and national holidays off...including week long stretches at a time that don't require the use of vacation days (like those in private sector), -educators then get additional vacation days with no cap, -sick days with no cap, -a retirement pegged at the last few years of salary (especially beneficial to administrators-more so for Superintendents that jump around and still carry their pension). -schools receiving full funding for 1/2 day kindergartners yet spending nowhere near that amount, then charging parents for additional 1/2 day care. -coaches receiving close to 10,000 for a sports season that lasts 2-3 months, then getting the retirement contribution on top of that. Proposal A saved the taxpayer (the dog) from the special interest groups of parents and educators (the tail) from being personally bankrupted/losing their homes because of a myriad of expensive millages that were almost always on the ballot in May, August, February, etc. Michigan has lost over 1 million jobs in the private sector and it is no surprise that all levels of government that is funded by the private sector would be affected. "Norton said parents also cannot be "partisan" or biased toward only the cuts and reform policies that impact them directly"...sounds like good advice for this group to consider.


Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 5:24 p.m.

"Half truths and outright lies are the only thing the GOP know how to recite." ...interesting comment, considering the headline. Not paying attention again? Wake up Spicoli!!


Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 2:24 p.m.

Your statement that teachers only work 180 days doesnt' include the significant number of hours spent at home in the evenings and weekends performing job related tasks. When the hours are added up, the numbers often exceed those in a regular full time position. Anyone who thinks that a teacher is only on the job while in the classroom doesn't have a clue. I have seen the number of hours my wife spends creating preps for each class (she teaches 3 different classes), creating projects / exams/ quizes, setting up the classroom to minimize social distruptions, and grading homework and exams. Evenings and weekends hours are substantial


Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 2:15 p.m.

I don't think your information is accurate. Most of those are myths...


Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 2:04 p.m.

Your bullet points are full of half-truths and outright lies. Show me proof that teachers get additional vacation days or sick days with no cap. The 180-day work year is a fallacy touted by people who don't understand that there is more to the job than having children in the classroom. Also, claiming teachers make $100,000 before they retire is blatantly false. Teachers have taken cuts in pay and health benefits and pay more into their own retirement. What do you want?

Janet Neary

Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 10:57 a.m.

You have to have a sense of humor to read (let alone to write) a story describing a meeting that contains no Republican representative and that primarily consists of attacks on Republicans' actions and views about education and that then says that the point of the meeting was to urge nonpartisan discussion and action on education.

Steve Norton, MIPFS

Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 4:13 p.m.

I was asked because someone had mentioned my name as a person who has done a lot of education advocacy work. Rep. Irwin was there because he's the elected state representative from this district. Mr. Leach was there as an AAPS teacher and someone who has spoken out about budget cuts in the district. There was no intention to make this a partisan panel, and to the extent that party labels came up, it is only because one party has control over both houses of the legislature and the governor's office. The issue is not about party labels, as I said repeatedly at the meeting, but about policy choices.


Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 3:18 p.m.

John - The announcement of this event in came yesterday, the same day as it occurred. The organizers and speakers all are elected Democrats or well-known as Democrat/Progressive education activists and were identified as such in both articles. But this article says nothing AT ALL about the composition of the audience. If, due to the lack of advance publicity, many of the small audience present were members of the First United Methodist Church at Green Wood which hosted the meeting, chances are that at least a few of the people in the audience were Republicans. Membership in a mainline Christian denomination such as the Methodists is much commoner among Republicans than Democrats, even in Ann Arbor. Comments like yours do more harm than good to the speakers' stated purpose of reforming Michigan's funding model for education. And confirm Janet Neary's point that it is pretty silly to attack Republican attitudes and actions as a prelude to asking for their cooperation in making changes to the educational funding system or anything else.

Janet Neary

Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 2:46 p.m.

John, according to the announcement of this meeting, it was organized by the church, and the speakers chosen for the meeting were the three people discussed. There is no indication that a Republican was ever asked to be a speaker. My point, by the way, was the naïve and misleading description of the meeting -- typical of -- not anything about my own views of public education. I happen to be a Democrat, but that doesn't make me approve of misleading reporting.


Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 1:45 p.m.

Maybe if just ONE republican cared, that person would've shown up. Much easier to pay for charter schools, and have your kid read online all day than to actually learn any skills.


Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 10:52 a.m.

If you want to fix education in Michigan the first thing that needs to happen is that the retirement system needs to be reformed and the missing retirement money has to be found and paid into the system. Otherwise the retirement system will see the bulk of the education money not the classroom. I doubt anyone at the meeting last night spoke to this issue. Both the retirement portion and the health care portion of the retirement system need fixing, both in how they work and in how they are funded. Like it or not Americans live longer on average and work longer on average then they did when the retirement system was put in place, it is time to agree that the retirement system needs to have a new formula for healthy people to be able to retire at. The fact that the Principal at Huron could retire from his job and take another job in Indiana (which he will also retire from with full benefit - and he will work in Indiana while drawing full retirement benefits from Michigan), shows just how out of whack the system is. Means testing retirement payouts for people under the social security retirement age is a start, not just for school employees but all public sector workers who are going to draw a pension paid for with public dollars. Closing the $50 billion dollar gap in the retirement fund will let the schools stop paying over 25% of the salaries of teachers into the retirement fund. Now, Rep. Irwin, be non-partisan and take on the elephant in the room.

Maria Huffman

Wed, Jun 19, 2013 : 12:40 p.m.

Thank you for your answer. Mrs. Huffman.


Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 8:06 p.m.

Ms Huffman - Because I do my research. I read state laws, talk to lawyers, teachers and administrators. I put time into my comments, they are not just off the cuff. No, I am not a teacher or public employee, nor have I ever been one, unless you count the US Military as being public employees. I do not have one in my household. So I hope that answers your question and the question behind the question.

Maria Huffman

Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 6:04 p.m.

To DonBee, I ask, after reading your reply in this thread, how are you so well informed on teacher retirement plans, both here in Michigan and in Indiana?


Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 5:02 p.m.

a2cat - You are correct, principal at Pioneer. Mr Norton - You can with careful planning retire from the Michigan Teachers system at 47. If you then use the Indiana system which is similar where age PLUS time in service count, you can indeed get to full benefits after retiring in Michigan. Raising the "number" (age plus years of service) in Michigan to more closely approximate current retirement age would be a huge step forward. Since the current retirement system is by state law and not by contract, it could be done with a simple change in the law. Say for teachers who are between 5 and 10 years from retirement, add 10 to the number and those beyond 10 years from retirement take the number up to where retirement is at 65. That would drop the liability in the system significantly and put school employees on a footing closer to what the rest of the population is expected to do. As to the shortfall - part of it is the lack of growth during the great recession, part of it is the lack of pay in from 2001 through 2009 by the state and the decision to not change the contribution percentage by the school districts to reflect the actual costs. So these three factors have added up to a $50 BILLION dollar hole, that is now eating school funding.

Steve Norton, MIPFS

Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 4:08 p.m.

Actually, the cost of the retirement system did come up, though it's a complicated issue and we couldn't get into too much detail. The legislature did pass a major "reform" of the public school employee retirement system last year, which will dramatically decrease benefits for new employees and will start lowering the costs of the system in the next 10 years or so. Whether the new system will provide adequate coverage to attract and retain young teachers is not so clear. It's important to remember that a huge amount of the current cost, the "unfunded accrued liability," comes from losses on investments during the Great Recession. Those are still in the calculations because they use 5-year moving averages. When the markets' recovery gets fully factored in, the retirement overhang will shrink dramatically. Lastly, Michigan's pension system - and I assume other states' as well - depend on years of service. If someone goes to another state to work and works long enough to vest (10 years here in MI), then their pension payout will depend on their years of service in that state. You don't go somewhere else and get a "full pension" after a few years of work.


Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 2:12 p.m.

Did you mean principal at Pioneer?


Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 11:27 a.m.

This past year school employees were given some options for retirement and health care in retirement. They could have choose to leave everything the way it was, which would decrease their retirement benefits or increase their contributions to retirement and health care in retirement. This is in addition to the 3% the state is already taking for retirement. Between the two the percentage that school employees have added, just this year, to the retirement system is a least 4.5% of their pay. School employees have been forced to make these changes and to see their pay checks shrink dramatically over the past year. Between that and the 3% teachers and most other unions in Ann Arbor just gave up I feel they are doing their fair share.


Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 10:27 a.m.

That crowd appears to be disguised as empty seats.

Usual Suspect

Tue, Jun 18, 2013 : 1:35 p.m.

Obama was there?