Financial woes continue for local school districts in 2013

School officials look for ways to cut costs, increase budgets

By: Maria Allard | Warren Weekly | Published January 1, 2014

 Fitzgerald High School ninth-grade English teacher Paul Hrycaj instructs students while in class. School officials continued to address financial woes in 2013 due to Michigan’s economic downturn.

Fitzgerald High School ninth-grade English teacher Paul Hrycaj instructs students while in class. School officials continued to address financial woes in 2013 due to Michigan’s economic downturn.

File photo by Deb Jacques

WARREN/CENTER LINE — When Michigan’s economy sank several years ago, it took with it state aid funding for public education.

Less money was traveling from Lansing to school districts around the state, although costs were rising and school officials felt the pinch, which impacted more like a body slam.

School programs were cut, jobs were reduced, salaries were frozen and worry was ubiquitous. State curriculum mandates continued, as did the threat of state government taking over local districts not complying with the legislative requirements.

Many districts also dealt with declining student enrollments. With fewer students, districts received less money in per-pupil funding and were forced to make budget cuts. To stay afloat, teachers applied for grant money, supply costs were lowered and employees began paying a percentage of their medical benefits.

As we leave 2013 and head into 2014, school officials have a lot on their plates but vow to continue to do what they set out to do in the first place: educate students.

“The cuts made to state aid over the past several years have presented challenges. In Fraser, we have made a lot of strategic moves financially to become much more cost-effective,” Fraser Public Schools Business Manager Laurie Videtta said. “Fraser Public Schools has made a concerted effort to keep cuts out of the classroom. In Fraser, we remain focused on providing a quality education for all the students, despite cuts made to state aid.”

“Certainly it has been tough, given the fact that we have lost over $400 (in) per-pupil funding over the last three years,” Fraser Public Schools Superintendent David Richards said. “However, as a district, we have continued to focus on maintaining our programs and enhancing opportunities for our students. Our staff members have contributed to our ability to do so through concessions and contract negotiations.”

School officials have relied on their staff to help maintain budgets. Paying a portion of his or her own medical costs has helped. As per Public Act 152, public schools employees in Fraser have been paying 20 percent of their annual medical costs since July 1, 2012. Other district employees have made concessions.

“Our employees need to be complimented for their willingness to take on the financial burden of their health care,” Warren Fitzgerald Public Schools Superintendent Barbara VanSweden said. “The district has a cap. The district gives you $15,000 toward your health coverage.”

The employee then covers any costs above the $15,000 cap. On a high note, the financial picture wasn’t as bleak for Fitzgerald this school year.

“Financially we’re in a much better position than anticipated for the year,” Fitzgerald Director of Business Jamie Kendall said.

The district received an extra $114,885 from the Michigan Department of Education based on student performance driven by test scores. The MDE issued another $80,486 in Renaissance Zone funding, which is to foster economic opportunities in the state.

“Every year, when we are amending the current year budget, we evaluate everything we are doing in our district and meeting the needs of our teachers, and providing our staff with the tools and resources they need to do their job,” Van Sweden said. “We’re preparing students for the world beyond graduation. Everyone contributes. We’re seeing academic progress throughout all the grade levels. We’re not perfect, but we continue to evaluate what our needs are and make appropriate changes.”

One obstacle is the steady declining student enrollment many districts are experiencing. Morale in school buildings statewide has fluctuated. To keep it up, many districts continue to recognize staff and students at school board meetings and through teacher-of-the-year programs.

There was a time in which public school districts didn’t have to continuously cut budgets and feel the burden of every bottom line. VanSweden and Kendall doubt those days will ever come back.

“I wish Jamie and I could be much more optimistic about that,” VanSweden said. “K-12 public education is not at the top of the priority list. I’m frustrated and sad. Sad for our students.”

VanSweden sees young people leaving Michigan for lack of opportunity in this state.  

“My niece and nephew aren’t staying. They see employment plentiful in other areas. They are looking ahead to their future,” VanSweden said. “I’m concerned we’re going to be left with an aging population. We won’t have that newer generation to help sustain the state.”

Seeking other revenue sources
School officials have looked elsewhere for funding.

At the Dec. 16 Van Dyke Public Schools Board of Education meeting, the school board voted 7-0 to dip into the district’s fund equity to stay afloat this school year, rather than lay off staff or cut programs during the middle of the school year.

Fund equity, sometimes known as a rainy day fund, acts like a savings account and is used in emergency situations. Using fund equity dollars was VDPS Superintendent Joe Pius’ recommendation. The board members agreed.

“Although we made a commitment to build (it up,) I am in agreement with using the fund equity rather than making the cuts instead,” Board Trustee Steve Nielson said. “I think our students are involved with their teachers and probably happy, and wouldn’t want to see any changes and start with someone new.”

In February 2011, Fraser voters passed a $19.9 million bond issue that paid for technology upgrades, which include iPads for students districtwide during the 2012-13 school year. Bond dollars also allotted for facility upgrades, including a new auxiliary gymnasium at Fraser High School, parking lot renovations throughout the district and surveillance upgrades.

Over the summer, all five school buildings in Center Line Public Schools received updates. In the fall of 2012, school officials announced the sale of its 2012 School Building and Site Bonds in the amount of $6 million. The bond dollars were utilized to make several capital improvement projects at Center Line High School, Wolfe Middle School and Crothers, Roose and Peck elementary schools.

CLPS received the money through the Qualified Zone Academy Bond program. The district projects included secure entryways, roofing improvements and mechanical systems at Crothers, Wolfe and the high school. Crothers and Wolfe also received new bus drop-offs.

A new parking lot was scheduled for Wolfe, along with new lighting improvements. CLHS also was to receive new lighting improvements. Roose and Peck underwent some roof repairs. Many of the projects were geared toward improving operation efficiency and security within the school buildings, and reducing energy consumption.

Residents of CLPS are not taxed on the 2012 school building and site bonds. The district will have to repay the $6 million throughout the life of the bonds, which is 15 years. The district, however, will not have to pay interest on the $6 million. The money to pay back the bonds will come from the district’s operating budget. School officials will have to budget the money each year until it is paid off.

Grant money also has proven vital during the state’s financial crunch. For instance, Lincoln Middle School Director of Bands Tom Torrento was able to do some updates in the classroom this year, thanks to a $750 grant from the Michigan Schools & Government Credit Union’s Classroom Cash Grant. MSGCU is located in Clinton Township.

The grant money was used to renovate the school’s sheet music library into an organized, online database that all educators within the district could access.

Torrento used the grant money to purchase bookshelves, a desk and a chair for the music library. Some of the sheet music was 40-50 years old, and it now has a home in the online database. The new library would not have been possible without the grant.

Knowing teachers are often short on resources, MSGCU President and CEO Peter Gates said the annual Classroom Cash Grant program began in 2005 as a way to give back to the community.