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House faulted for delay on granting attendance, testing waivers to Oxford schools

The Michigan Education Association is urging the GOP-led state House to adopt measures that would grant waivers to Oxford schools from the usual requirements for days, hours, testing and evaluations. 

The bills passed through the Senate unanimously March 24 but have yet to receive a hearing in front of the House Education Committee, leaving Oxford Community Schools officials and families uncertain about when and how their school year will end after prolonged absences stemming from the Nov. 30 shooting at Oxford High School. 

“Oxford students, educators and parents should not have to face this much uncertainty with just weeks remaining in the school year,” MEA President Paula Herbart said. “They deserve answers from the Legislature about these important issues."

Oxford High School expects it will miss the state's instructional day requirement for Michigan schools by 24 days and other Oxford community schools are short by an average of 11 days, said Danielle Stublensky, a spokeswoman for the district.

Many students have taken the required annual tests but others chose not to take it or had difficulties that may cause the school to fall below benchmarks requiring 95% of students to take the test, Stublensky said.

Oxford Community Schools Superintendent Ken Weaver stressed the need for finality on the matter at a Tuesday meeting.

"They need to do what's right and get something passed," Weaver said Tuesday at the district's board meeting. "We are ending June 10 because it's best for the kids."

State Rep. Pamela Hornberger, the Chesterfield Republican who leads the House Education Committee, said the House is working to reconcile some parts of the legislation with budget provisions that would make Oxford schools whole for missed days and hours. In addition, Hornberger noted that the year is already so advanced that the window is limited for implementing other elements of the legislation related to testing or evaluations.

She said she is working with Oxford schools about how to move forward.

The Senate bills, sponsored by Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Keego Harbor, would waive the 75% attendance requirement for Oxford schools as well as the six-day to nine-day limit on school day cancellations.

The legislation also would allow the Oxford school board to skip the administration of the Michigan Merit Examination or other state assessments if the Michigan Department of Education obtained a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education. Additionally, the school district would not have to evaluate its teachers or administrators "regularly involved in instructional matters" for the 2021-2022 school year. 

Separate from the two Senate bills, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's proposed budget included boilerplate waiving the 75% attendance requirement for Oxford schools and instead proposed to count the days and hours the district was closed in the aftermath of the November shooting.

The House did not include that waiver in its School Aid Fund budget, but did concur with Whitmer's recommendation that yearly assessments administered in Oxford schools during the 2021-22 school year are not to be used to evaluate the district's teachers or to make decisions about retention. 

Additionally, the House budget included about $6.8 million to be used for mental health and safety resources, legal services, a third-party review of the shooting, repairs to the high school building and about $1 million with no specific limitations on its use.

But the placement of those provisions in the proposed state budget has the Michigan Education Association concerned about the months of negotiations usually tied to the state budgeting process.

Herbart warned the House against inserting the provisions into the budget bills since the budget process is "unpredictable" and the GOP-led Legislature and the Democratic governor could be haggling over budget details until the Sept. 30 budget deadline.

“No one in Oxford should be waiting for the budget process to play out to have certainty on how this school year will come to a close,” Herbart said. “Oxford students and educators shouldn’t face the choice of having to make up time or lose funding as a result of this tragedy." 

The Senate bills, by contrast, would give Oxford’s teachers and support staff much-needed flexibility, Stublensky said, and decrease the stress and strain on staff members by reducing required instructional hours and days and other testing and evaluation mandates. 

Without these bills, Oxford Community Schools could lose between $5 million and $7 million because of state requirements, she said.

“Which would penalize our students, families and staff at a time they are still reeling and coping with the tragedy,” Stublensky said. “Loss of this critical funding could force us to lay off dedicated staff members who continue to play a critical role in the recovery, healing and education of our students. It would also prohibit us from following through with the hiring of additional proposed staff positions to address our student’s and staff’s trauma.”

Those new positions include an executive director of student services and wellness and a recovery coordinator as well as two additional family school liaisons and two more counselors for the high school, she said.

“We urge lawmakers in both parties to support this important legislative relief package for our district, which has been through so much,” Stublensky said.