School District Uses $360K Budget Surplus To Hand Out Teacher Bonuses

by Christina Marfice
Mint Images/Getty

It’s not usual for a school district to have surplus money, but this one did, and used it to reward its staff

Generally, when news outlets talk about school districts’ budgets, the conversation is about how money has been slashed, funding for arts and extracurricular programs has been cut, and teachers and other staff are missing out on raises once again. But not in East Lansing, Michigan, where district officials finished the year with hundreds of thousands of dollars leftover and didn’t need much discussion to figure out what to do with the extra cash.

Auditors who checked the school district’s books at the end of the 2018-2019 school year found that East Lansing had ended the year with a $687,000 surplus. Superintendent Dori Leyko made the recommendation that more than half the money — $394,000 — be used to pay out end-of-year bonuses to teachers and other district staff, something that hadn’t happened in decades, if ever. The school board then voted to approve the plan without even discussing any other potential uses for the money.

One employee told the school board that they hadn’t heard of staff getting bonuses in the 39 years they had worked for the school district. Tim Akers, president of the local teachers’ union, said he wasn’t aware of a time teachers had ever received bonuses. But last week, all district employees left at the end of the day with a hand-written note from Leyko in an envelope that also contained some extra cash.

“It’s been extremely rewarding for me to give a token of appreciation to our staff,” Leyko told the Detroit Free Press. “They work so hard for our students and families, and I can’t think of a better investment than one in our people.”

Nearly 400 district employees received the bonuses. Full-time workers were paid $1,000 after taxes, while part-time employees received $500 after taxes.

This comes after pay for teachers in the East Lansing school district has followed the same trends as most of the rest of the country. Pay freezes came out of negotiations with the teachers’ union in the two school years prior to 2018-2019. In the last three years, union members said they did not receive raises they expected to get. In years prior to that, as budgets struggled to recover after the recession, the board of education said staff wages across the district didn’t grow much, if any. And that’s all while teachers nationwide are overworked and underpaid.

“Now, a few years down the road, the district is on better financial footing,” said Erin Graham, president of the East Lansing Board of Education. “Investing in our employees is one way we can show how much they are valued and appreciated.”