Welcome back to school, can you spare a dime?

abandoned schoolTomorrow morning, like so many other parents out there, my kids go back to school. My youngest is starting kindergarten, so it’s kind of a big deal and exciting and a little bittersweet for us.

But that’s not my point here. Because lying all over the floor of our living room are plastic shopping bags containing $90 worth of school supplies — pens, pencils, markers, crayons, watercolor paints, pads of construction paper, ringed notebooks, plastic sandwich bags, wet wipes, etc. — that are getting donated to school for the year. Ninety bucks for the school kitty!

As parents who are actively involved in our kids’ educations, we are of course happy to help out. But this is ridiculous, unlike anything I ever remember when I was going to grade school. And it’s an alarming symptom of a broken system: Our own schools don’t have enough funding to buy this stuff on their own and must turn to parents.

I doubt that parents in places like Bloomfield Hills have to deal with this sort of thing, since somehow these wealthy school districts are among the highest per-pupil revenue in the state at around $12,000. Whereas a poor district like Detroit? Well, there’s a giant billboard looming over the 8 Mile-Woodward bridge right now touting a law firm’s donation of 33,000 backpacks to Detroit Public Schools, if that tells you anything.

We’ve been hearing more and more outrage about this kind of inequity, both among school districts and now, increasingly, about our cities. Which is good, but it’s not enough. Not while the starve-the-beast crowd rules the roost in our state Capitol.

Highland ParkSo while the scrooges in the state Legislature advocate for shuttering the lowest-performing schools ahead of time — never mind working on ways to help them, you know, improve — Michigan’s long-neglected cities are teetering on financial crisis. Yes!

That’s thanks in large part to steadily declining funds from Lansing and limits on their ability to raise revenue that are unique among states.

The Free Press recently reported that despite the state’s overall improving economy, with state tax revenue climbing, revenue sharing payments to Michigan’s cities have been steadily going in the other direction for decades now.

The $1.2 billion in revenue-sharing payments the state will distribute to local governments in 2016 is down from nearly $1.6 billion in 2001, without even accounting for the effects of inflation. An April report by Robert Kleine, a former state treasurer, and Mitch Bean, a former head of the House Fiscal Agency, pegged total cuts in revenue sharing to local governments, not including counties, at $5.5 billion since 1988.

“It is truly difficult to be a city in this state,” and that’s true relative to all other states, said Josh Sapotichne, an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University who studies financial relationships between states and local governments.

Ferndale, a city of less than four square miles and roughly 20,000 people, lost more than $11 million in revenue sharing from Lansing since 2002, according to the Michigan Municipal League.  Now, my city does a good job providing services, picking up trash and recycling each week and sprucing up the parks. My guess is that’s thanks to new housing and business development, which help drive up tax revenue, and sound management of municipal finances.

An abandoned home in Flint.
An abandoned home in Flint.

Flint, by contrast, has lost $62 million in the same period. Now it’s dealing with the fallout of the lead-tainted water crisis, itself another “gift” from Lansing that will definitely not help matters. Think many developers are sniffing around Flint these days for investment opportunities? Or that people who want to leave are able to sell their homes?

School and municipal funding are different things in Michigan and I don’t want to confuse them. But they’re both suffering from skinflint attitudes among our elected leaders who think, absent of any real evidence, that the way back to prosperity is through less investment and “free market” solutions.

It’s not a sustainable model.

“If the right people are willing to show the courage and leadership needed to reinvent our municipal finance system, so that it provides the resources we need to create great places: we will thrive, not survive,” the Municipal League wrote recently in a blog post. “It is this Michigan that will be the economic powerhouse we all want and need. If we continue on the path we are on, we will starve cities to the breaking point and our future is bleak.”

So … happy school year, everybody!

Photos via Shannon O’Toole and Robert Monaghan


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