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Rep. McMaster: ‘A lot of schools in my district are at risk of receivership’

Most of the schools at immediate risk for takeover by the state appear to be in the Detroit metro area, but northern schools could also face Emergency Managers, according to state Rep. Greg McMaster (R-Kewadin).

“A lot of schools in my district are at risk of receivership,” said McMaster whose district includes Antrim County, Charlevoix County, Otsego County and part of Cheboygan County.

Earlier this month in a presentation on his proposed education policy, Gov. Snyder said that 23 schools that have more than a one million dollar deficit could face takeover by the state. Eighteen of those schools are in the Detroit area.

Deficits, however, are just one of several triggers for state involvement in schools and local governments under the new Emergency Manager law. Low bond ratings are another, and according to a report by the Center for Michigan at least 12 mostly rural and suburban school systems already have long term debt ratings of BBB or below — low enough to initiate state intervention.

The Bellaire school district in Antrim County is one of those schools with a low bond rating.

“If Bellaire schools isn’t able to come into the black an Emergency Manager could be assigned,” McMaster said.

At that point anything that would “loosen up the fiscal constraints that the school is operating under” would be on the table, he said. “The Emergency Manager would make prudent decisions and may have to change some contracts.”

McMaster said that some of the school systems in his district have let him know that they are in dire financial shape.

“One school has a fund balance of less than $380 dollars,” he said. “Another has about 8 million dollars.”

Some schools don’t have enough to operate for the rest of the year, he said, while others could make it through the expected school funding cuts without serious hardship.

McMaster said that he is especially concerned about Alba and Central Lake.

“I would like to see some of those that have contracts with schools come in and renegotiate,” he said.

As hard as things are for Northern Michigan schools now, next year is likely to be far worse.

Last week McMaster and other Republicans in the House approved a budget that calls for a 3.5 percent reduction in school funding.

McMaster said that he doesn’t like cutting school funding and he emphasized that the House cut is smaller than the 4.9 requested by the governor. He said that the move to reduce the cut and to express it as a percentage rather than as a flat rate is a result of efforts by northern Michigan lawmakers to ensure that northern schools, which already get less state funding than downstate schools, are not disproportionately affected by the cuts.

He acknowledged that class size could rise as a result of budget cuts.

“If there is going to be cuts coming down naturally the first thing they are going to want to cut is teachers,” he said. “I hope whatever they do it doesn’t impact education.”

McMaster said that he also hopes that the rural schools of northern Michigan are not forced to consolidate, which he said could increase operational costs.

“I’m glad he thinks we are in rough shape,“ said Alba Superintendent Derrel Kent. “He has not been responsive in terms of providing adequate funding for schools by giving us at least what we had in the past. I’m glad that he realizes that causes problems.”

Enrollment in Alba schools has held steady at about 180 pupils over the last 100 years, Kent said and the school system is a key part of Alba’s identity.

“Our board is determined not to let us go in to deficit. We will make the cuts we need to stay a float.”

“The community loves this school and is going to fight to keep it.” he said.

The state would have to force Alba to consolidate with another school.

“Some of our students are on the bus for an hour and a half already,” he said. “If we were to consolidate with another school they would be adding another hour.”

“People in Alba have gone though a lot of hard times in the last 100 years and have been able to keep the schools,” he said. With pressure to consolidate, funding cuts and state testing requirements Alba is now facing its biggest challenge yet.

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