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Students at Voyageur Academy, a charter school in Detroit. Superintendent Vergil Smith says Whitmer's vetoes would make it harder for the school to help teachers gain full certification.

Students at Voyageur Academy, a charter school in Detroit. Superintendent Vergil Smith says Whitmer’s vetoes would make it harder for the school to help teachers gain full certification.

After Whitmer’s veto, Detroit charter schools brace for impact

Charter school leaders in Detroit say they would have to cut back music education and teacher training if Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s veto of $35 million for their schools is allowed to stand.

While traditional schools bring in $240 more per student under the new state budget, it seems increasingly likely that charter schools will be held to the same amount as last year — effectively a budget cut, when accounting for inflation.

“We planned our budgets last spring with the confidence that the money would come through,” said Mike Conran, superintendent of Global Educational Excellence, a charter network that includes nine schools and 4,500 students in Michigan, including some in Detroit. “Now we have to look at phasing in curriculum instead of buying it all at once, reducing professional development, reducing teacher-to-student ratios.”

Whitmer, a Democrat, had hoped to add $500 million to the state education budget. The budget that reached her desk, however, included an increase of roughly $300 million, and it didn’t send additional funds to disadvantaged students, as Whitmer had hoped.

Calling the Republican proposals a “mess,” she axed $127 million from the proposed $15 billion education budget, characterizing the vetoes as a tactic that would push the legislature to renegotiate. Her line-item vetoes mostly targeted issues that are important to GOP lawmakers — things like charter schools and support for isolated rural school districts

On Tuesday, Republican leaders filed bills to reverse a number of Whitmer’s vetoes, including of charter funds. “There are a lot of charter schools that are doing a really good job for students, and they need that funding restored,” said Sen. Jim Runestad, a Republican.

Yet there is no guarantee that the $35 million will be restored. The new Republican-backed bills don’t offer any additional concessions, and Whitmer could veto them, too.

The budget battles come at a particularly delicate moment for education in cities like Detroit and Flint, where schools must compete for a limited supply of students. Throughout October, schools tally their enrollment; every additional student brings in roughly $8,000. The stakes are especially high for charters as they face the prospect of receiving less money available from the state.

Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for Whitmer, said the GOP-backed budgets were “fatally flawed,” adding “Governor Whitmer had to make tough decisions to make sure families have access to the critical services that they rely on every day.”

Brown said the governor is working with Sen. Curtis Hertel, a Democrat, on her own changes to the budget, which would “protect education, public safety, and public health.” She declined to provide specifics about charter school funding.

Michigan’s charter sector, which enrolls about 10% of the state’s 1.5 million students, is left bracing for a painful blow.

Kyle Smitley, the founder of two elementary schools in Detroit, said in a Free Press column that the vetoes would cost her schools, which enroll 286 students, $102,000.

“That money was slated to pay for our part-time music teacher, part-time phys-ed teacher and a portion of our special education expenses,” she wrote, adding: “Why, exactly, are my kids worth less than other kids, Governor Whitmer?”

Whitmer did not stand out as a foe of charter schools on the campaign trail, even as other Democrats in Michigan and nationwide took a tougher stance. One of her key advisors is Doug Ross, who helped found University Prep Schools, the largest charter network in Detroit.

“This was totally from left field,” said Mark Ornstein, CEO of University Prep. He estimates that Whitmer’s vetoes will cost his schools $1.2 million. In an interview with Crain’s Detroit Business, he said the network might be forced to “pause” planned raises for teachers, but he walked back that comment on Monday, saying the network is still exploring its options and that he didn’t want to lose teachers.

Vergil Smith, superintendent of Voyageur Academy, a K-12 charter network with roughly 1,200 students, said his schools will be insulated from Whitmer’s vetoes by an unexpected uptick in enrollment.

“Voyageur will be less affected because our student count came in higher than originally budgeted for,” he said.

Yet he’s still hoping that the vetoes will be reversed, which he said would allow his schools to help long-term substitutes obtain full teaching certificates.

“We are hoping Governor Whitmer’s plan to cut charter funding will be changed.”