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June 26, 2013

Grosse Pointe Schools approve 2013-14 budget

By April Lehmbeck
C & G Staff Writer

GROSSE POINTES — After digging into the Grosse Pointe Public School System’s rainy day fund in recent years to make ends meet, allowing it to dwindle to an unhealthy low, the district is starting to rebuild that fund.

This is the first year in recent years that the district hasn’t had to tap its rainy day fund, but will actually add to it. Yet, that wasn’t possible without continuing to make cuts to the district’s expenditures. The school board unanimously approved the 2013-14 budget at its June 24 board meeting.

Prior to the start of the financial woes felt by cities and schools across the state and nation, the district had a healthy $20 million fund equity. They now have a projected $2 million balance at the end of this fiscal year, but the picture starts to look a little better at the end of the 2013-14 budget year.

“To get our fund equity down to $2 million throughout those prior years, we’ve had more expenses than revenues and we’ve been using our fund equity to make up that difference,” Deputy Superintendent for Business and Operations Christian Fenton said.

“Our general fund equity is projected to increase from approximately $2 million to $5.1 million,” he said, citing major changes like salary and benefit reductions.

He said they had planned for this change by projecting a dip in fund equity before starting to grow it again, as changes made in the district began to impact the budget in a positive way.

While the district is moving in the right direction, auditors usually recommend that cities and school districts have fund equity that is at least 10 percent of their general funds. At the district’s high of $20 million, they were at about a 20 percent fund balance, but $5 million gets them up to about 5 percent, which is still below healthy levels.

According to the presentation at the board meeting, the district will see about a $5 increase per pupil in foundation allowance from the state. They will be losing about 42 students, mostly because of a drop in the number of projected elementary students.

The expenditures will be reduced about $7.4 million from last year’s budget, as well.

Everyone wasn’t happy with the proposed budget, however.

During the public hearing on the budget, a couple of special education assistants spoke about a salary cut they are having to endure.

“I love my job, even though I’ve had to work four jobs to make ends meet,” said Darlene Schmidt, who has been a special education assistant for 13 years. “Morale is so low right now. Those kids need us and they need us to be at our best every day when we come in there.”

Staff members want to try to find solutions other than continuing to cut their pay.

A couple of staff members spoke about the reduction of clerks at the elementary level, as well.

Board Trustee Cindy Pangborn said she, too, is concerned about that cut and wants the district to work with the community to find creative solutions to the budget issues that will help them bring back those clerks.

She said she has seen the work done by the secretaries during her volunteer work at Monteith and believes they need the help of the clerks for longer than just at lunch.

“It’s about safety,” Pangborn said. “There’s a lot of dangers by limiting staff, especially at the elementary school.”

She said she believes they can come up with some out-of-the-box ideas if they brainstorm with the community, which she said has a wealth of talented people who can contribute.

“Grosse Pointe has always been the leader in the past,” Pangborn said. “I think that by doing things we haven’t done before, we can regain some things we’ve lost in that area.”

As for what they are saying are necessary budget cuts, other board members chimed in to say they are not happy that they have to make cuts to staff or salaries and benefits. They are concerned about the future if the state leaders continue down the road of continuing to cut funding for school districts across the state.

“I hear what people are saying to us and I understand what you are saying to us; Lansing has squeezed the budgets so much, we really don’t have anything left to cut,” board Treasurer Judy Gafa said, adding that they have spent down equity over the last few years while also making cuts so they could balance their budgets.

She fears the need to make tough decisions, like increasing class sizes next year, if the state continues to choose other areas to fund over education.

“This is not an easy decision,” she said of the cuts. “It’s not a comfortable decision.”

Others also spoke of the tough decisions.

“We have a fixed budget that we have to work with,” board Secretary Lois Valente said. “The Board of Education has scrutinized and scrutinized and scrutinized its decisions.”

In regard to concerns raised at the meeting, board Vice President Daniel Roeske challenged the administration to look for other areas to cut or bring in revenue.

“If you look at it line by line, there are opportunities,” he said.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer April Lehmbeck at alehmbeck@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1043.