Community forum draws feedback on budget cuts
May 18, 2011 - Brandon Twp.- Sandy Wiley, a Brandon Middle School teacher, feels her profession is under attack
"For more years than I can count, I've had to defend my career," said Wiley, who left a medical career and took a $40,000 pay cut to become a teacher. "I am sick and tired of defending our value."
But at a community forum May 16 that is what she was doing once again. Wiley addressed Sen. Dave Robertson and Rep. Brad Jacobsen and about 50 members of an audience that included other teachers, school board members, and residents concerned with proposed state budget cuts to education and taxes on pension income, among other issues.
Wiley quoted an article from The New York Times that show teachers in the United States earn less than educators in numerous other developed nations, and cited a recent investigation from Channel 7 that discussed the benefits state legislators receive, including lifetime health benefits starting at age 55 for those who have served at least six years in the state congress.
"Imagine what will be when all the term limit legislators hit 55," Wiley said. "This state ranks fourth highest in legislative salaries. How is that equitable? Who is tenured and receives full benefits for six years?"
"I can't argue with that," said Jacobsen, who added he doesn't take the state benefits because his wife receives better benefits as a Lake Orion Schools speech therapist. He noted there are legislators from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s who receive extremely good benefits, but he didn't know if that could legally be changed.
"But you're trying to change ours," Wiley responded.
The House voted last week to cut 3.5 percent from the 2011-2012 state education budget, meaning a loss of $280 in per-pupil funding. The Senate has a proposal that would cut $240 per-pupil. Robertson said that after the Senate votes, the budget will be reconciled in a conference committee.
Retired teacher Dave Vultaggio noted that districts are also losing $170 in federal stimulus funds and are also expected to pay more in retirement contributions, all money that will come out of district general funds. The Brandon School District, which currently has 3,360 students, is expecting a budget shortfall of roughly $2.6 million based on the proposed state budget cuts, as well as the loss of federal funding and increases in expenses.
"The governor said teachers need to 'just' take cuts for healthcare and add more for retirements," Vultaggio said. "It's not gonna happen... When we cut budgets, it's people we are cutting... Brandon doesn't have a lot to cut."
Jacobsen said because the largest component of a school budget is employees, there is no other place to compensate other than wages and benefits. He said he isn't advocating a cut in pay for teachers, but said the benefits, such as healthcare, are "extreme" and suggested that schools could bid with Blue Cross.
"Good teachers won't come into this profession if the benefits are decreased," said Wiley. "50 years ago, teachers' pay and benefits were equal to lawyers. Now our pay is 50 percent lower than the private sector. You're going to lose good teachers."
Robertson said he has the "utmost respect" for the profession of teaching, but takes exception to some of the positions the Michigan Education Association (teachers' union) has taken in Lansing.
"It's entirely reasonable for teachers or governmentt employees to make a contribution for their own healthcare, that's what employees in the private sector do," he said. "My constituents tell me they want better use of their tax dollars and a way to reduce costs. I'm having this conversation with police officers, firefighters... Teachers are not singled out, everyone is asked to find ways to save in the cost of government."
"Teachers have been put at the bottom of the pile," said Judy McReavy, a township resident. "They should be put at the top. The governor giving money to business and then saying the teachers should take a cut is unfair."
Her comment, directed at Gov. Rick Snyder's proposal to give $1.7 billion in tax breaks to businesses, met with applause at the forum.
Robertson defended the business tax cuts as a way to make business grow and create jobs.
"The best thing I can do for teachers is to keep children in your classrooms," he said. "To do that, I need to keep parents working so they don't leave the state... We have the second highest unemployment rate in the nation. We have to create a better environment for job providers."
Besides education cuts, the other frustration most commonly vented at the forum was the proposed taxing of pension income, which Jacobsen voted in favor, and Robertson voted against.
"I am the daughter of a 91-year-old Ford retiree," said township resident Brunhilde Merk-Adam. "I resent the taxing of pensions. The last thing (senior citizens) need is another tax burden as their health deteriorates."
Goodrich resident Jack Frost introduced himself at the forum, by saying he is 57 years-old, "retired and destroyed," pushed into retirement from General Motors, with a destroyed pension and healthcare.
"I can't get a physical," he said. "I fought against discrimination all my life. I will be in Lansing to sign a recall against this governor on Saturday."
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville