'It's unacceptable': Michigan superintendents admonish legislature for holding education funds

Michigan school leaders called the hold-up on federally-approved funds in the legislature unacceptable and warned education districts in the state will suffer if money isn't distributed soon.

"We're caught in the middle of this political struggle in Lansing. It's not a great place to be," said Kevin Miller, the Superintendent of St. Clair County Regional Educational Service Agency.

"...tying these dollars to health-related debates is unacceptable. It's unconscionable," said Peter Spadafore, the deputy executive director for external affairs at the state's association of superintendents and administrators.

About $1.6 billion was approved by Congress in a bipartisan recovery package last December. However, those dollars have yet to be distributed to school districts after Michigan Republican lawmakers tied their release to the governor giving up her authority of in-person learning. The districts were given 15 months to spend the money. Anything not used goes back to the federal government.

Almost in unison, superintendents from Southeast Michigan counties, as well as advocates from education associations on Tuesday urged the state legislature to release the funds. 

"All you're doing is dragging every school and every student into a political battle they have no desire to be in," said Robert McCann, executive director of the K-12 Michigan Alliance.

At the same time, school districts are waiting to see how much money will be available for the next few semesters as they prepare for another tricky school year and summer break.

Issues like learning loss from the previous year will require extra money to correct as remote-learning practices have proven to be difficult settings for students to learn in. Miller said his districts have seen a noticeable decline in letter grades for those that learn remotely compared to those that learn in-person.

The approved money is partly designed to help districts return to in-person learning settings. 

RELATED: GOP's $3.5 billion recovery plan threatens school funding if Whitmer doesn't relinquish powers

Other costs like after-school activities, summer school programs, public transportation to school buildings are also outlets where the money is spent. Another is refitting the ducts to improve airflow in buildings - a popular remodeling project during the pandemic. But that kind of project can take months to complete.

"Any facility work as it relates to air systems, that work takes months and months," said Randy Liepa, superintendent of Wayne RESA. "Districts doing any major renovations need time to prepare."

Republicans on the Michigan House Appropriations Committee released a COVID-19 relief package option in late January that offered about $2 billion less in funding compared to the governor's relief bill. 

While both offered similar funding to schools, the GOP's bill came with the caveat that called on Whitmer to relinquish control over school closures and allow local health departments to make those decisions. For the past few months, it's been the state health department's epidemic orders that have dictated school operations.