Remarks on K-12 Funding in Michigan

Here is the full text of my remarks during a press conference today on the front lawn of Lee High School:

I have the privilege of leading a tremendous team of well-qualified educators. I’ve been an administrator in the Godfrey-Lee district since 2002 and superintendent for the past six years. I grew up in this community and attended schools here.

In my time serving in the district I’ve seen more and more kids, through no fault of their own, growing up in homes where parents are struggling to make ends meet, often working two or three low-wage jobs just to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.

Many of our students are first and second generation immigrants whose parents decided to raise them here because of the high-quality public education we’re capable of providing. Nearly 25% come to us through Schools-of-Choice because they like the atmosphere and personal care of a smaller district. But because of decades of disinvestment in public education made by our state legislature, especially over the past four years, we’re failing to deliver as hoped for each and every one of them.

GLPS Foundation Allowance

State funding for our core academic programs has been cut in recent years and over the past 20 years has failed to keep up with rising costs due solely to inflation.

Kids in our district are hard working and capable of learning but they face greater barriers to success, often starting out two to four years behind in their education. And because many come with limited English language skills, they need more instructional time and specialized training for our teachers.

As I’ve stated, we know our students can be as successful as students in any other district, and we can help make sure that they are, but that’s much more difficult to do when Lansing continues to slash funding to our schools and perpetuate an inequitable funding system. It’s meant that class sizes have gotten substantially larger, but we don’t have the resources to reverse this. Class sizes in our elementary schools have gone from on average eighteen to twenty in a classroom to anywhere from 25 to 30. Two-thirds of our middle school this year could have upwards of 34 students in several of their classes.

3rd grade reading to poverty

This graph illustrates that results on state 3rd grade reading tests are correlated to the percentage of students growing up in poverty. The yellow circle represents Godfrey-Lee 3rd graders.

Additionally, our district has not been able to purchase new textbooks or replace outdated ones for the past seven years, nor are we able to provide even more high quality training and coaching for our teachers to help overcome the barriers of poverty and limited English proficiency. We’re not alone in being short-changed by our state legislators, as education funding has been cut in most other school districts across the state to a level that is inadequate to reach the lofty college and career readiness goals for every child.

We know beyond a doubt that when provided adequate and equitable resources to meet the needs of every student where they are at, they can be successful. Research by Rutgers University’s Bruce Baker has proven this point for a number of years and has singled out our school district for being one of the most unfairly financed districts in the country.


Godfrey-Lee is one a handful of districts in the country deemed unfairly funded by their states, and has been on this list since 2009. Baker, Bruce D. America’s Most Financially Disadvantaged School Districts and How They Got that Way: How State and Local Governance Causes School Funding Disparities. Appendix C. July 2014

We’ve proven the fact that school funding matters. Lee High School received a substantial federal school improvement grant that provided the instructional resources, additional learning time, additional teachers, as well as extensive staff training and coaching over a three-year period. During that time, the high school went from the bottom of the state’s Top-to-Bottom rankings all the way to performing better than 63 percent of schools in the state. It was identified by MDE as a model for effectively using additional funding to close achievement gaps and elevate student learning. Those funds, which amounted to an additional $2,200 per student per year, were exhausted after three years and many resulting programs, particularly extended learning time, could not be sustained. Subsequently, the school slipped to the 11th percentile this past year.

Funding does matter, especially when it comes to providing equitable learning opportunities for kids. It’s time for our elected leaders to show they have the right priorities for our children’s future by making greater investments in our public schools. But beyond that, leaders in Lansing also need to prioritize allocating more aid to districts who are struggling with greater needs to ensure that every child in Michigan has the opportunity to succeed.

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Thinking Back to That First Graduating Class

This evening we will gather at Resurrection Life Church to honor and celebrate the 90th graduating class of Lee High School. Our human minds have a difficult time grasping the concept of “90 years” because we are captives of our personal memories, and life prior to our very own first memories is but an illusion. My own personal memories likely date back to as early as 1959 and anything that occurred prior to that time is but fiction to me, although intellectually I know that the world was turning long before I was born.

In late fall of 1923, the doors to the new Lee Street School were opened to a group of students who had been enduring the over-crowded conditions of the old Godfrey School. The high school grades had only been around about fourteen years and even then only extended to the tenth grade. Students who attended ninth or tenth grade at Godfrey likely experienced attending classes in narrow hallways and stairwells. There were only ten classrooms total.



Originally planned only to be a junior high school, by the time the Lee Street School opened it had a small handful of students who had just entered the eleventh grade. Their experience at Lee would be short-lived and four would become members of the very first graduating class during the spring of 1925, a time when the electric Interurban train to Holland would ramble by the front of the school several times each day.

From the very first fall, they had fielded a football team and both boys’ and girls’ basketball teams followed that winter. The next spring, they managed to come up with enough players to field a baseball team. In their senior year, the boys’ basketball team made it all the way to the state semi-finals, not bad for a rural school barely open for one year. That spring, a track team took the place of baseball and three of its members went on to the National High School Tournament at Ann Arbor. The girls’ track team set a number of records and won championships in the Suburban Meet and West Michigan A.A.U. meet.

Because the Class of ’25 was so small, it required the aid of the junior class to put on its musical comedy,  “Sunshine.” It played to a full house the first night but due to an injury to one of the cast members, a sell-out crowd had to be turned away the second night.

Eventually, graduation day came for that first class of Lee High School seniors. A year later, Magdalene DeYoung was attending Grand Rapids Junior College and would eventually become a school teacher. She would live to be the oldest surviving member of those early days attending alumni reunions at Lee well into the first decade of the 21st century.

Her fellow graduates included Marie Austin who went to work at Michigan Bell Telephone in downtown Grand Rapids; Albert Smith who following graduation tried his luck in the growing movie industry in California; and Alvin Oakes, who quickly became a foreman in the expanding Pere Marquette Railroad Yard industries on the north end of Wyoming.

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Norovirus Outbreak

Lee Middle and High School was closed this morning with students and staff being sent home just prior to the start of a typical Friday. It became clear that a flu-like outbreak was underway due to the number of staff and students calling in sick with similar conditions. The Kent County Health Department was called in and the evidence concludes an outbreak of the Norovirus.

What is Norovirus? Norovirus is a virus that causes acute gastroenteritis also known as the “stomache flu”. Symptoms of Norovirus infection are nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cramping and low grade fever. It is spread by fecal-oral route, either by consumption of fecal-contaminated food or water, direct person-to-person contact or by environmental contamination where the virus lives on inanimate objects such as keyboards, door handles etc.

How can you prevent yourself and your children from getting Norovirus? Below are several charts (English and Spanish) that can help you. In the meantime, our cleaning company is completely disinfecting all of our school buildings and the Lee Field locker room this weekend. Our technology team has assisted to make sure all of our computer keyboards and laptops are also sanitized. We have cancelled a number of athletic practices and events this weekend, and have closed the schools to any weekend events pending completion of the cleanup. I would also suggest that our students avoid congregating together this weekend, particularly if a family member has contracted the virus.

At this point, we anticipate opening school on Monday morning. If that should change, we will immediately notify all of our families through the emergency notification system, television, radio, Facebook and Twitter.



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Reading NOW!

Godfrey-Lee Public Schools has committed to being a member of the West Michigan Reading Now Network. Education leaders throughout West Michigan understand the importance of developing talent that is career ready and college capable. While there are a variety of metrics (8th grade math achievement, ACT and NCRC scores, graduation rates, etc.) that help us gauge our success, no milestone may be more indicative of students’ future achievement than their early reading proficiency. While good results on all commonly accepted metrics remain our mission, in no other area are the measures so reliable and valid, the prognosis for poor performance so clear, and the collective industry knowledge so deep.

That’s why superintendents from ten West Michigan counties have coalesced around this collaborative initiative to insure we meet Michigan’s goal: a minimum 80% of third graders in all demographic groups read proficiently at grade level and that intervention strategies be systemically implemented for the 20% who, due to normal developmental differences, take a little longer.

The stakes have never been higher

One in six children who do not read proficiently in third grade fail to graduate from high school on time, four times the rate for children with proficient third grade reading skills. In the “pivotal” third and fourth grade years, students transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Fourth graders struggling to read begin to lag in many, if not most, subject areas; comprehension and vocabulary suffer.

These challenges, however, can be best mitigated when leading practices in early intervention and instructional methods are identified, shared, and implemented BEFORE a child reaches third grade. While today’s schools are forced to compete with each other on many fronts, school leaders in the Reading Now Network are committed to sharing these practices on behalf of the region’s children. The Reading Now Network embraces two powerful philosophical positions:

  1. There is a moral and economic imperative to the relentless pursuit of early literacy.
  2. We must collectively own both our successes and struggles because every child is a valued and important member…now and in the future…of our Godfrey-Lee school district, the West Michigan community and the world beyond.

The Reading Now Network will:

  • Benchmark successful early literacy practices in other countries, states, and across our own region
  • Implement proven, research-based K-3 literacy instruction and interventions
  • Marshal the region’s K-3 literacy expertise and experts on behalf of all the region’s children
  • Design and deliver teacher professional development that reflects best practices in K-3 literacy
  • Openly share successful strategies for early intervention, remediation, and acceleration
  • Open our classrooms to cross-regional learning, highlighting “bright spot” innovative practices
  • Identify and promote community-wide support and involvement in helping our students read
  • Assist parents with at-home strategies, including non-English speaking or non-reading parents
  • Hold each other accountable for our mutual success

How is this different from today? Too often, teachers, schools and school districts work in isolation, attempting to overcome all obstacles on their own. Schools in the Reading Now Network are going to break down the barriers, work together, share their best work and inspire all to do better.  Our partners will include Talent 2025, an employer-led initiative to enhance the skills and educational attainment of our workforce and retain those talented people within our region, as well as Grand Valley State University which is committed to working in concert with schools like ours to help in data analysis and program evaluation.

We are excited to be a part of this collaborative effort and look forward to the added effort of achieving reading and overall academic success for our students. As a Reading Now Network member, Godfrey-Lee Public Schools will work with education, business, legislative, community and parent partners to insure that every child in our district and region is a successful reader, both sharing with and learning from all partners in the network.

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The “Promise” of Proposal A

We’ve received and reviewed information from the Michigan House Fiscal Agency as to the potential impact of the Governor’s K-12 budget proposal on our district. We are mainly concerned with the foundation allowance which is the primary bedrock funding for the core academic programs we must offer to each and every student, regardless at what level of achievement that student may be at when our doors re-open after Labor Day.

Based on the HFA document dated February 11 and available on the Michigan School Business Officials website, our foundation allowance is projected to increase by $111 (the maximum available) to $7,187 per pupil. The computation used to determine this amount is as follows:
  •  Every district, regardless of their current funding level, will receive $55 per pupil
  •  Each district is to receive an additional level of per-pupil funding ranging from $28 to $56. The precise amount will be based on the state’s “2x formula” which was designed to bring lower funded districts up and “close the funding gap” per the promise of 1994’s Proposal A.
I use “close the funding gap” loosely because at the rate our state is working on equity right now, all of us reading this will be deceased come that monumental day.  To illustrate in simple math what I mean, you can compare our district (not the lowest funded, but close) with another Michigan district in a wealthy community (I choose to leave the name out of this post), which by the way is one of the highest funded f not the highest funded normal-size school district in the state (excluding island schools and a few other anomalies).  That district is proposed to receive an additional $83 this fall, thereby bringing its foundation allowance up to $11,967.  
If the budget is passed as the Governor proposes, this will be $4,780 more per pupil in foundation allowance than our district. The difference between our increase and their increase is $28. If that rate of the so-called “closing the gap” continues, by the year 2185 both districts will be at an identical per-pupil foundation funding.  
Just a mere 171 years before equity is achieved. In genealogy terms, that’s only another 6.8 generations to go.


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Setting the Record Straight on our School Funding

Governor Rick Snyder released the details of his proposed budget this week including funding for K-12 education for the next school year. It makes sense that the Governor would claim that he is proposing a 3% increase in school aid since this is an election year and any politician wants to paint a rosy picture to garner support. But the facts are the facts and I’m going to set the record straight.

The Governor’s proposal includes an additional $150 million for foundation allowance increases ranging from $83 per pupil to $111. At the same time, he proposes paying $783.9 million into the state school employees’ retirement system, or MPSERS as it’s known. We are grateful for the additional funding going directly into MPSERS and reducing the growing burden on school districts, especially since none of the conditions that created the problems with the state retirement system were caused by school districts or our students. In fact, haphazard state policies such as rapidly expanding charter schools, pressures to privatize services, and the recent early retirement incentive have harmed the retirement fund along with the poor investment performance. Districts have nothing to do with any of these management and policy issues. They are the responsibility of our elected leaders but schools and students are left paying the price.

That said, let’s take a closer look at the Governor’s proposed increase in the foundation allowance, which represents the majority of general school aid used not only to provide every student with access to a core academic program designed to make him or her college and career ready, but to operate classrooms, schools and the district at large. And it’s important to understand that during Governor Snyder’s first year in office (2010-11 school year), the foundation allowance was cut by $470 per student. This school year, our district gained back $60 and it’s estimated this fall, if the Governor’s proposal is enacted into law, we might gain back approximately $100. Well, not really.

Our foundation grant in this year is $7,064. Why we receive that much is a topic for another discussion because Michigan allocates funding to school districts based on no sound logic. The district also received $52 in one-time funding in return for agreeing to a handful of “best practices,” none of which support higher levels of achievement. Once our budget was in place, we also learned that we would receive $70 per student in one time funding as a “reward” for achieving certain scores on the MEAP and MME tests. We don’t really know how that money was earned because the state doesn’t really share the methodology in any understandable format. Needless to say, that funding wasn’t identified during our budget planning so we weren’t able to build it into our school improvement plans. That’s the irony of “reward” funding since it has little impact on reducing the barriers to higher level academic performance, but it’s something this legislature and governor really love.

Taking all of this into account provided us with $7,186 in per pupil funding to operate our core academic programs, transportation, administration, technology, and facilities upkeep. This “increase” in per student funding equated to $182 per student, but only $60 was guaranteed as the rest was identified as “one time” funding only. Remember, we started out three school years ago with $470 per student less which over that time period equated to a total loss in per-pupil funding of $1,410. If you add inflation to the mix, there’s no logical way that any additional funding received this year can be categorized as an increase.

We are projecting that the Governor’s new budget proposal may provide an additional $100 per student so I’ll use that here to illustrate the impact for this coming fall. First of all, it would raise our foundation allowance to approximately $7,164 per student. If we add the “one-time” best practices funding in, which the Governor claims he will continue for another year, that will be an additional $52 per student. I cannot add back the academic achievement reward funding because we will not know if we will receive it until they crunch all the assessment numbers and produce the results. Therefore, in our budget and staffing planning this spring and summer, we can only count on $7,216 per student to fund our core academic programs. Comparing that to the current year’s funding results in a per-pupil increase of only $30 which, given our expected enrollment, does not provide enough funding to hire back even one additional teacher.

Obviously, there is a lot of work left in Lansing before any K-12 school aid budget is signed into law and we’ll be watching this work very closely. The fact still remains that despite four years of inflation and growing costs to educate a significantly high at-risk student body, our per-pupil general funding next year, as well as the previous three years, will continue to be lower than it was back in 2006-07. Since then, our student enrollment has grown by more than 300 (18.6%), our classrooms and schools have become more crowded, the percentage of our students coming from impoverished homes has risen to 38% (highest in the county), and the portion of our students struggling with limited English proficiency has grown to 42%. But sadly, none of this is ever considered by Lansing when appropriating general school aid funding for our schools.

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Three will join the Lee High School Rebel Hall of Fame this Friday

On Friday, February 7, three individuals will be enshrined in the Rebel Hall of Fame during an induction ceremony scheduled between the varsity girls and boys basketball games vs. the visiting Kelloggsville Rockets.  The newest members will join thirty-three other individuals along with the entire 1940 football team. The ceremony will be conducted approximately between 6:45 and 7:15 pm

This year’s inductees selected by a committee that includes representatives from the past six decades include:


Leon W. Hendrix, Class of 2004 - An academically outstanding student graduating seventh in his class, he was a member of the National Honor Society, Science Olympiad Team, and first chair in the high school band woodwinds group as well as being selected to serve as drum major during his senior year; having identified his interest in journalism and radio-television broadcasting at an early age, experienced his first live broadcast as volunteer auctioneer at the local PBS affiliate; graduate of Hope College where he studied communications and Spanish, and was founding member of the college’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers; served as news and sports director for the campus radio station; interned at WXMI-TV in Grand Rapids before hiring on at WOOD-TV8 as weekend associate producer, assignment editor, and working up to reporter as well as anchor desk duties; recognized in 2010 by Michigan Association of Broadcasters with an award for Best Investigative Story.

ImagePatrick W. Ziegler, Class of 1984An active member of his class, he served as class and student council president his senior year; participated in football, basketball and track, student council, musical productions, Close-Up, and on the Aerial student newspaper and Echo yearbook staff; selected by his classmates to the homecoming court his junior year and homecoming king as a senior; graduate of Western Michigan University in theater and communications and later honored with an Outstanding Alumni Award from the Theater Department; trained at the National Shakespeare Conservatory in New York City where he had brief stints on popular television shows and worked in theaters; worked as a producer in Los Angeles and received regional Emmy Award in 2009; co-founded an entertainment company producing a web-based program titled “Backstage Drama,” which earned a second Emmy Award with proceeds benefiting local community theater.

ImagePeter Arthur Foote, Class of 1967, Teacher, Principal - A leader in his class, he was a member of the student council serving as president and Ottawa-Kent League of Student Councils president his senior year; active in choir, debate, Spanish Club, Junior Rotary, senior play and selected by his classmates for the homecoming court; enlisted in the U.S. Navy following graduation serving two tours in the Republic of Vietnam earning a number of citations and seven battle-campaign stars; graduate of Grand Valley State University, taught a variety of subjects at Lee Middle & High Schools for 34 years, served as advisor for several student groups, and was promoted to secondary principal during his final three years with the district; prior to retiring in 2011, he led a successful transformation of the school from a low academic achievement designation to the highest ranked high school in the surrounding area.



The Rebel Hall of Fame was established in 2007 to recognize alumni and other individuals associated with Godfrey-Lee Public Schools for their achievements and contributions to society. While many high school halls focus primarily on athletic achievement, a decision was made early to identify individuals who have been successful in a variety of areas including business and industry; community teaching, volunteerism, philanthropy, or leadership; elected or appointed government; high military leadership or heroism under combat conditions; athletic excellence; and other areas considered unique and providing positive, significant contributions.

The very first individual inducted was Reuben L. Young, who taught initially several years following the opening of Lee High School in 1923 but then went on to serve as principal for an unprecedented thirty-eight years before retiring in 1967. Mr. Young held a special place in the hearts of several generations of Lee Rebels and his induction set the bar for what it takes to be selected to the Hall.

Several other Hall members include:

  • Former State Representative Jelt Sietsema, Class of 1939
  • The 1940 undefeated and un-scored-upon championship football team that included a number of eventual World War II veterans some of which never returned home
  • Deborah Traxinger, Class of 1978 and member of Parade Magazine’s All-American basketball team for that year
  • Art Kraai, coach of four state champion and two runner-up cross country teams and member of the Michigan High School Coaches Hall of Fame
  • Pat Cook, Class of 1933 and along with her husband, Peter C. Cook, one of the area’s notable philanthropists
  • Frank “Stubby” Overmire, Class of 1937 and Detroit Tiger pitcher including the 1945 World Series championship year
  • Dr. Bernard Eisenga, Class of 1970 and former medical director for the Spectrum Health Poison Center in Grand Rapids
  • Charles Lark, Class of 1982 and captain in the East Grand Rapids Department of Public Safety
  • Stephanie Leonardos, President & Chief Executive Officer for Amerikam
  • Gary P. Schenk, Class of 1961, distinguished lawyer and founding partner of Schenk, Boncher, & Rypma, P.C., as well as former President of the Grand Rapids Community College Board of Trustees
  • Henry J. Beld, thirty-two year member of the Board of Education including twenty-five years as president
  • Dr. Robert H. Puite, Class of 1942 and named to the Spectrum Health Distinguished Physicians Society in 1999

The Hall of Fame committee and school administration purposely chose to house the Hall in the original 1923 hallway of Lee High School because most students travel through that part of the school several times each day. Next to the Hall is an area dedicated to honoring the twenty-seven former Lee students who gave their lives in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. “Our goal is that these men and women live on in our school life and influence each generation of students who come through here,” according to Superintendent David Britten, a former student and principal at Lee High School.

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