Casino funded scholarships could total $25K per student

The New Buffalo School District is close to receiving the final approval it needs to spend casino cash on college bound graduates.

Each year, the district receives money from the Four Winds Casino.

A bill passed earlier this week in the Michigan Legislature would allow some of the cash to be used to fund a one of a kind scholarship program.

The program would provide graduates up to $5,000 per year for up to five years, for a grand total of $25,000 dollars.

“The entire goal for this is to get kids off to a good education and we're not just talking about college, a kid who wants to go to cosmetology school, auto mechanics, ivy tech, any of those types of things,” said New Buffalo School Superintendent Mark Westerburg.

Westerburg says that 30 school districts across the State of Michigan collect casino money, but only New Buffalo has proposed giving kids a cut in the form of scholarships.

“Somebody has to be the first one to start it I guess,” said Westerburg. “One of the things that helped me with this, happen to have four sons myself and three of them, were not eligible, we're eligible and didn't get the Michigan promise scholarship when the money dried up.”

While New Buffalo may have a reputation as an affluent beach community, Westerburg says that 50-percent of the students qualify for free or reduces lunches.

“We want them to be an education population because kids tend to move back to their hometown and when they do, we want them to be employable and productive,” said Westerburg.

This year, the graduating class at New Buffalo High School will number approximately 65 students.

“It doesn’t matter where the source comes from you know, the opportunities are, for kids, it’s just great,” said Mich. Sen. Ron Jelinek, (R) Three Oaks.

Jelinek sponsored legislation that passed through the Michigan legislature this week to clear a legal path for the scholarship program.

“In this case, New Buffalo was the first school district to come forward and say we've got some money that we don't have to use for general operation, we'd like to use it to help our students,” said Senator Jelinek.

However, the scholarship program did have its share of controversy. “Whenever there’s a lot of money involved, you get a little jealous,” said Robert Schroeder, the Superintendent of the River Valley School District in Three Oaks.

Schroeder was among those who feared that the New Buffalo scholarship program would be seen as too great—for the good of neighboring school districts.

“As a parent, you're thinking to yourself, that's $25,000 that I’m not going to have to put out for college education when my kid graduates,” said Schroeder. “And you know the logical thinking people are going to say; I’m going to go over there (to New Buffalo).

Michigan’s Schools of Choice program allows students who live in one district, to attend classes in another district, if space is available.

The concern in the River Valley district and elsewhere was that New Buffalo would see a stampede of new transfer students looking to take advantage of the scholarship program.

The potential problem was addressed in the bill that clears a legal path for the scholarship program.

“And I think what they ended up with was pretty good language,” said Superintendent Schroeder. “Students who are there now school of choice, I guess are going to be eligible for the scholarship, but no new school of choice students will be eligible, they have to be residents of the district.”

New Buffalo Superintendent Mark Westerburg insists that his district never meant to steal students from neighboring district.

Westerburg says that the scholarship program only works because New Buffalo is a small district.

“We are small in size,” Westerburg said, “We’re about 65 kids in a graduating class. That allows us to do that, if we had two or three hundred or more, we couldn’t afford to do this.”

Westerburg hopes to begin offering the scholarships to graduates of the class of 2010, who will receive their diplomas in ceremonies scheduled for Sunday.

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