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Michigan teachers work to get word out on impact of governor’s spending cuts

Michigan’s teachers are warning the public that the deep cuts to elementary and secondary education spending proposed by Gov. Snyder, combined with the newly signed Emergency Manager bill, pose a grave threat to the state’s education system.

Gov. Rick Snyder has proposed a $900 million cut to the School Aid Fund for K-12 education.

The governor has recommended that school districts absorb this cut by consolidating services and requiring teachers to pay more toward their health insurance, but education officials across the state say this will not make up for the budget gap that will be created by the proposed cuts.

At least 40 school districts are already in deficit and a recent Free Press analysis found that 150 more are likely to be driven into deficit by the proposed cuts.

Under the Emergency Manager law that was signed into effect last month, the state school superintendent can appoint someone to take over a school district that is in deficit. This person could ignore elected school boards, cancel labor contracts, change curricula, privatize services, and close schools or merge them with others.

Educators are trying to get the word out about the scale of the trouble facing schools.

“’The perfect financial storm’ is about to smash its way over Warren Consolidated Schools for the 2011-2012 school year compliments of those in control of the state legislature and federal government,” Warren superintendent Robert Livernois wrote in a letter sent home with students last month. The school district “would need more than $1,000 per pupil in additional money to offset the proposed cuts … the district would have to lay off 220 teachers or nearly one of every four teachers to eliminate this reduction in school funding. Simply, fewer teachers means larger class sizes.”

“We can’t use this meat cleaver approach to cutting our way out of the problem,“ Livernois wrote, and he urged parents to contact legislators and tell them to “LEAVE THE K-12 SCHOOL AID FUND ALONE.”

Teachers are also trying to mobilize people to oppose Gov. Snyder’s education cuts.

Thousands are expected to demonstrate at the Capitol in Lansing on Thursday at a rally sponsored by the state’s largest teachers union, the Michigan Education Association.

“The legislation being considered on a daily basis at the Capitol (emergency managers, step freezes, mandatory privatization, mandatory health insurance payments, budget cuts, etc.) are outright attacks on our students, our members, our communities and our future,” MEA President Iris Salters wrote in a letter to teachers last month. “And we must take action accordingly.”

Across the state MEA locals are now holding general meetings to vote on whether the union should “initiate crisis activities up to and including job action.”

“Recent events have poked the beehive,” said Ann Arbor Education Association President Britt Satchwell, who is organizing to bus people to Lansing for the Wednesday rally.

Satchwell said that Republican attacks on the public services and public sector workers have triggered new coalitions and a movement that is uniting teachers with nurses, firefighters and students.

He said he believes all of Ann Arbor’s MEA units will approve political action to defend education funding.

State law bars teacher from striking, but there is still a broad spectrum of actions they could take.

Already teachers are putting in overtime to educate about current events, he said. “We just had a grade-in, a peak of the secret life of teachers on Saturday.”

Teachers gathered in public places to do their weekend work of grading papers while wearing pins that read, “I’m a teacher, ask me what I am doing.”

Other actions might include rallies in school parking lots before class, public debates or even “work to rule” actions where teachers fulfill the terms of their contracts but do none of their regular additional work such as supervising extra curricular activities.

Teachers do so much extra above and beyond their official duties to subsidize schools, Satchwell said. If they stopped doing so, families “would feel that at the kitchen table.”

“Whatever we do it is going to be very well thought out and planned,“ he said. “We want to keep kids out of the way and we don’t want to inconvenience parents.”

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