July 23 06:16 AM

Educational leaders focus on challenges

House Republicans host hearing at Ed-Tech Center

Imlay City High School counselor Paul Druker makes a point during House Republican Education Hearing at Lapeer Ed-Tech Center on Monday. photo by Tom Wearing.

June 10, 2009
LAPEER COUNTY — The challenge of providing a quality education to students in a state reeling from the economic downturn was the center of discussion during an educational forum Monday at the Lapeer Ed-Tech Center.

Sponsored by a House Republican legislative task force, dozens of local educational leaders were on hand to voice concerns and offer opinions and possible solutions to the many complicated issues facing public education.

Those in attendance included schools' superintendents, administrators, teachers, school board members and others whose ideas and opinions will factor into legislative decisions that impact the ability of Michigan schools to teach in the near future.

Each of the participants was presented with a list of specific questions pertaining to the major issues, along with the opportunity to respond to the questions and offer comments.

The questions ranged from the attendees' opinions about the value of MEAP testing and standardized testing in general to new graduation requirements, benefits for teachers and school funding.

The hearing, co-hosted by local House Representatives Kevin Daley of Lapeer County and Phil Pavlov of St. Clair County, is the first of several to take place across the state.

On Monday, the complexity of the issues was evident as the experts discussed and debated how best to serve students with dwindling funds available from Lansing.

"Is there a number where there is enough money?" Pavlov asked the attendees. "Everything we do has a financial cost. If government doesn't react, we're all going to be in a world of trouble."

Pavlov pointed out that the state is currently about $950 million shy of what it needs to maintain school funding. This, he said, comes at a time when state income tax collections are down by 56 percent and 75 percent of schools are experiencing declining enrollments.

Without any certainty about how much or when state funding will arrive, local school boards struggle to meet their budgets without severely compromising opportunities and programs for students.

Longtime Capac School Board member Mike Lentz wondered if there is an end in sight to the state's educational woes.

"Is there any ray of hope here, or are we all going to fall off the cliff?" asked Lentz.

"The cliff is real," warned Task Force member Tom Pearce. "The reality is that in two years, we'll be down to essential services. We will not have the money to fund at the same level."

Turning to ideas for cost cutting, the proposals on the table included: capping administrative salaries, eliminating prevailing wages, shifting healthcare costs, consolidating/privatizing services and changing retirement plans for new hires.

With myriad challenges and difficult solutions lying ahead, some in the audience used the opportunity to voice their concerns.

Lapeer Intermediate School District Supt. Joe Keena worried that cutting back on benefits for new teachers could have undesirable consequences.

"The defined benefits are what helps us attract quality teachers," Keena noted. An unidentified teacher shared Keena's concern.

"It's a little bit ironic that well-intentioned people like you (legislators) are asking to cut my retirement benefits after 30 years in the profession," she said.

Realizing there would be diversity in opinion, Rep. Daley described the hearing as a necessary step in gathering input from experts in the field of education.

"It's always good to have this kind of discussion," said Daley. "We learned a lot in one-on-one conversations with the superintendents before the public hearing. I think everyone was happy we did it and we were able to develop a rapport. They want to know that someone is listening."

Although the results of the questionnaire are not yet available, Daley said he was surprised by some of the responses.

"There were a lot of people who want the educational mandates lifted," said Daley. "They want to be able to get back to the job of teaching kids."

On Tuesday, Imlay City Schools Supt. Gary Richards said he was pleased that county school officials were afforded the chance to voice their concerns.

"We are grateful for the opportunity to present feedback," said Richards. "I think now everyone is anxious to hear the results of their answers."

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