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Posted on Tue, Sep 4, 2012 : 5:50 p.m.

Candidates eyeing state House seats debate education funding on back-to-school day

By Ryan J. Stanton


State Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, speaks about education funding during a press conference outside Beach Middle School in Chelsea on Tuesday.

Ryan J. Stanton |

Candidates looking to represent Washtenaw County in the Michigan House for the next two years used the first day back to school on Tuesday to frame a debate around education funding.

During a news conference outside Beach Middle School in Chelsea, Saline Mayor Gretchen Driskell, a Democrat running for the 52nd District seat held by Rep. Mark Ouimet, said the ability of schools to offer a quality education has been under attack with cuts from the state.

"The Saline schools actually took a $1.5 million cut in 2011 when the Republicans cut over $1 billion from education and K-12 funding," she said. "Here in Chelsea, they had over a $600,000 cut."

Driskell said that affects the ability to have quality teachers, a quality classroom environment and an excellent and diverse curriculum.


Sandy Inman, a retired Chelsea school teacher, said state cuts to education funding have had a negative impact on school classrooms.

Ryan J. Stanton |

She was joined by 53rd District state Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor; Adam Zemke, an Ann Arbor Democrat running in the 55th District; and Sandy Inman, a retired Chelsea school teacher.

Together, they called on the state Legislature to restore full funding to Michigan schools. They said the most recently passed budget, which did restore some funding, didn't go far enough, and they argued the cuts were driven by the need to make up for a $1.8 billion tax cut for businesses.

Ouimet, R-Scio Township, maintains the budget choices the Republicans have made in the last year and a half are positioning the state for more job growth.

"We were left with a $1.5 billion deficit from Granholm and all departments were cut," he said of the position the Legislature was in last year when it cut funding for education. "You always want to do more with public education, but we had an obligation to actually balance the budget."

Ari Adler, press secretary for Republican House Speaker Jase Bolger, echoed Ouimet and said the Democrats are distorting the Legislature's record on education funding.

"We went through a period last year where we had to adjust all of the state budgets down in order to get spending under control," he said. "When we made those reductions, education was kept as a priority and received the smallest reduction — about a 1.5 percent reduction — and we have now increased funding to K-12 and higher ed this year to restore most of that."

Adler said there was a base $300 per pupil cut in school funding last year on top of a loss of $170 per pupil in federal stimulus money that went away.

Through new incentives offered for following best practices and the state helping schools address retirement costs, he said, it turned out to be a $100 per pupil cut in the end.

"If the Democrats want to talk about an additional $170 cut per pupil and blame President Obama, they can do that, but let's talk fact and not rhetoric," he said.

Irwin accused Republicans of running from their record, which includes a 15 percent cut to public universities last year, and said they're trying to cloud the issue now.

"They restored about $100 of the $470; that's the way I look at it," he said. "And that $100 only goes to districts that qualify for their funding rubric they've created. If they hadn't raided the school aid fund, there would be an additional $700 to $900 per pupil."

Adler and Ouimet noted Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation on Tuesday reforming the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System, addressing retirement cost burdens facing schools. The reforms are expected to shrink long-term unfunded liabilities by more than $15 billion.


Mark Ouimet

Ouimet called the reforms ground breaking and said the new law directs more funding to public school classrooms by eliminating billions of dollars in employee retirement liabilities.

"Schools across Washtenaw County and the state of Michigan are breathing a sigh of relief, knowing that millions of additional dollars will be available to improve education," he said.

The rate that schools pay in employee retirement costs has doubled since 2002 and was slated to grow to 35 percent of payroll costs by 2016 had no action been taken.

The new law makes several changes, including increasing employee contributions and pre-funding retiree health care, which means the state is setting aside money to meet future debt.

Ouimet cited a nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency analysis that showed the two-year estimated savings for Ann Arbor schools is $12,449,200, while Chelsea schools will save $1,600,501, Dexter schools will save $2,288,428, Manchester schools will save $669,925, Saline schools will save $3,517,351 and Whitmore Lake schools will save $709,772.

"This is tangible savings that will help improve education and provide a better future for local students," he said.

The three Democrats who gathered in Chelsea on Tuesday didn't mention those numbers, but they did cite figures showing that the Ann Arbor School District lost nearly $4 million and the Chelsea School District lost $630,000 with funding cuts in the 2011-12 school year.

Inman, a retired Chelsea High School teacher who taught for 35 years, said she's noticed a negative impact on classrooms.

"The effects include fewer teachers that can be hired," she said. "And then when fewer teachers are hired, of course that means bigger class sizes. And bigger class sizes mean you don't have the time to spend with the individuals that you need to give the students the best quality education."

As a science teacher, Inman said, she especially saw an impact on lab classes, some of which now have more than 28 students in them.

"And not only can you not get to each student as much as you'd like, but in addition to that you really have to consider safety," she said. "And you have to think: Can I even do this lab activity now?"

Irwin said education is a top priority in Washtenaw County and voters should make sure they have a state representative who shares their priorities.

"Unfortunately that same ethic, that same priority for education, is not in place in Lansing," he said. "A budget is a reflection of your values — it's a reflection of your priorities."

While Driskell tries to unseat Ouimet in the Nov. 6 election, Irwin is defending his seat against long-shot Republican challenger John Spisak, while Zemke takes on Republican Owen Diaz for a chance to fill the seat being vacated by state Rep. Rick Olson, R-York Township.

Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's email newsletters.



Wed, Sep 5, 2012 : 4:58 p.m.

Rep. Ouimet has been doing a great job getting our State's fiscal house in order which required difficult decisions. I've know from my own classroom that more money is NOT the solution; parental involvement is! Why doesn't the MEA (my union) ever mention that? I've voted for Gretchen many times in Saline, but I'll be voting for Mark in November.


Wed, Sep 5, 2012 : 4:44 p.m.

Who does Ouimet truly represent? a) Amway Corporation in Grand Rapids b) Citizens of his 52nd District c) Himself d) Both a & c


Wed, Sep 5, 2012 : 2:34 p.m.

So what I didn't read was the actual IMPACT of the cuts. I read some generic rhetoric ("fewer teachers CAN be hired...), but how did the kids perform? Were teachers laid off? Were teaching positions left unfilled due to the cuts? Did graduation rates change? Were labs actually cut? (instead of having to "think" if I can do it) what was the real, actual impact of the cuts on the students?


Wed, Sep 5, 2012 : 1:59 p.m.

Spending more and more money is not the answer to help schools, which is clearly what Gretchen Driskell wants to do. Very unsettling, as this is not working nationally or locally.


Wed, Sep 5, 2012 : 11:16 a.m.

Several people here are mentioning "union bosses." Could you please clarify with facts what this looks like in the world of education? Teachers across the state are sacrificing quite a bit, so this talk of the power of unions needs some facts as back up.


Wed, Sep 5, 2012 : 5:04 p.m.

Can anyone tell me just what a "union boss" is? I've belonged to unions in the past, but never really heard of my unions ever having a "union boss" nor have I ever heard of this term before this current election cycle. Could my "union boss" have been Betty the cashier at the grocery store I worked at when I was in high school? The job title eludes me. Help!


Wed, Sep 5, 2012 : 2:27 a.m.

As a retired teacher from Saline, I am tired of our outgoing mayor continuing to criticize teachers and the Saline School System. It would be more appropriate for her to criticize the MEA and the union bosses.


Wed, Sep 5, 2012 : 3:11 p.m.

I don't think Driskell's comments are citicizm of Saline teachers. How do you get that out of this article? Mark Ouimet's comments only reflect on what Snyder did. What is Ouimet doing?


Wed, Sep 5, 2012 : 10:55 a.m.

You are right Betty, as a retired teacher, you should be angry at the MEA for retirement benefits and retiree medical care...glad to see you like the GOP who passed a bill to jack up your share of those benefits.


Wed, Sep 5, 2012 : 2:20 a.m.

I think it is shameful that the liberal left always uses the kids as pawns when discussing any fiscal issues involving schools and education. Mr. Synder and his administration were left with an extraordinary deficit and needed to make difficult decisions. It is interesting that Driskell continues to criticize and attack the education system when Saline Schools are solid and well respected.


Wed, Sep 5, 2012 : 11:14 a.m.

Snyder created a larger deficit by taking money from the education budget to give to businesses.


Wed, Sep 5, 2012 : 2:09 a.m.

Obviously, a news conference for the far left only! What Ryan Stanton fails to note is that there were only 8 people at this event, 3 of whom were from the media! Driskell is truly showing her far left affiliation and her longing for the days of failed policies in the Granholm administration. If elected, she will be the pawn of Jeff Irwin in the House and the liberal left in Ann Arbor. We need fiscal responsibility and government policies that support students and not the MEA and union bosses. I congratulate Mark Ouimet in his efforts to put kids first - he has my support this fall.


Wed, Sep 5, 2012 : 12:25 p.m.

Kayla1 again it would help if you read the story. "When we made those reductions, education was kept as a priority and received the smallest reduction — about a 1.5 percent reduction — and we have now increased funding to K-12 and higher ed this year to restore most of that." Kayla1 not sure about you and your job, my department at work has had %30 cut from it's budget, my pay has dropped more then 10% over tha last 2 years. I would welcome a 1.5% reduction at my job.


Wed, Sep 5, 2012 : 10:52 a.m.

How did he "put kids first", when he supported giving cyberschools the same foundation grant as "brick and mortar" schools? He put the private companies who run those programs first, not kids.


Wed, Sep 5, 2012 : 2:26 a.m.

How did he put kids first if he voted in favor of cutting funding to our schools? Sounds to me like he put businesses first... This whole thing isn't that complicated.

Dog Guy

Wed, Sep 5, 2012 : 1:36 a.m.

A photo op with an actual school as background. You can't argue with that.

Stephen Landes

Tue, Sep 4, 2012 : 11:04 p.m.

A couple of observations: Balancing the State budget is an absolute necessity. It is better to balance the budget by making targeted reductions than the typical flat percentage "haircut" that is commonly used. If a balanced State budget helps to grow our economy by giving business owners confidence in the State's ability to plan and control spending, the net result is likely to be more jobs and higher overall tax revenue. More jobs and more revenue can ultimately increase funding for education. Any school district that baked "stimulus" money into their base budget was extremely foolish.


Wed, Sep 5, 2012 : 12:20 p.m.

"Balancing the budget on our schools though?" Kayla1 did you read the story? "When we made those reductions, education was kept as a priority and received the smallest reduction — about a 1.5 percent reduction — and we have now increased funding to K-12 and higher ed this year to restore most of that."


Wed, Sep 5, 2012 : 1:57 a.m.

Balancing the budget on our schools though? I can understand balancing our budget but why did we take from the schools to give businesses TAX CUTS! That's not fair at all. And why are schools even an option on the chopping block? They are so desperately in need of funding that we have the fed coming in to help. I'm sorry but who else better to tell you how dire our situation is other than a teacher... listen up people


Wed, Sep 5, 2012 : 1 a.m.

I understand that is the theory, but how long should it take for us to see the jobs/revenue?