Budget deficit avoided with Schools of Choice change, union concessions

By: April Lehmbeck | Advertiser Times | Published July 5, 2011

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HARPER WOODS — With concessions from every bargaining table and a major down-to-the-wire change in Schools of Choice, the Harper Woods School District should keep itself off the state’s deficit reduction list with next year’s budget.

The Schools of Choice change, which was approved before the budget approval during a special meeting June 28, was the deciding factor on how things would look at the end of the next fiscal year.

Still, the situation continues to look bleak when it comes to school funding at districts across the state.

“Funding has again been cut for schools in the state of Michigan,” Superintendent Todd Biederwolf said. “We continue to face challenges.”

The board approved the Schools of Choice changes with a 4-2 vote and the budget with a 4-2 vote. Board Vice President Margaret Wagner and Trustee Brian Selburn voted against Schools of Choice, and Board Secretary Tracy Purnell and Selburn voted against the budget with Board President David Kien absent from the June 28 meeting.

The Schools of Choice change allows the district to enroll up to 121 out-of-district students into special programs at all school levels if they meet specific requirements, including demonstrated academic success and no disciplinary issues.

Without that change and changes in the teacher union contract, the district would have been staring down a more than $400,000 deficit. With the teachers union concessions, they were able to whittle that amount down to about an $184,000 deficit, but the Schools of Choice approval helped the district move into the black with an $183,000 fund balance at the end of the next fiscal year.

Helping to fix the district’s budget issues were concessions agreed to by unions and other staff members, including the most recent ones with the teachers union.

“In a time of declining revenue, we need to prioritize classrooms and our staff needs to be more affordable,” Biederwolf said.

The teachers contract included changes to health care plans and to compensation like adding a couple of steps to the salary schedule, so it takes longer to reach top pay.

It helped the district from having to cut more than they already have over the last few years.

“It’s not my recommendation to further reduce services or supports for kids,” Biederwolf said.

Yet, some board members wanted to at least have more of an opportunity to consider all the options instead of feeling like they had to make a last-minute decision on Schools of Choice proposals deemed as the only real savior of the budget.

The school board considered the budget at its previous meeting on June 21, but needed to schedule the special meeting to continue its discussion and get the approval before the end of the month and start of the new budget year July 1.

“We’re behind the eight ball on this thing,” Kien said at the June 21 meeting.

It needed to be approved by the end of the month, but they also needed to decide on the Schools of Choice issue because that would play a key factor in budget numbers.

With two big decisions by the end of the month, some board members expressed their frustration at what they called being against the wall on the Schools of Choice issue.

“It’s extremely disappointing that here we are, two days before the deadline, and we’re still talking about school of choice,” Selburn said, adding that the board asked for information on a limited Schools of Choice plan in October of 2010. “The board gave clear direction. We said if we have to see it, we want to see it done with admission criteria. … All of this could have been done in November, December, January, February, March and April.

“We’re still up in the air,” he said. “We’re still in influx, and we don’t know what to do. … We’ve been backed into this corner. I don’t understand what took so long.”

Some of the other options Selburn said could have been looked at, even if they were not popular ones, would be closing the pool, moving to a four-day kindergarten and establishing larger class sizes.

Pay-to-play wasn’t presented as an option to the board, Selburn said.

“We never even talked about that,” Selburn said. “It didn’t even come up.”

Wagner also took issue with the idea that Schools of Choice was the only real option presented.

“I’m not afraid of a financial manager,” she said, adding that there are many, many districts in a tough financial spot. “They’re just going to have to stick everybody’s name in the hat, and maybe we get pulled and maybe we don’t.”

Not everyone on the board felt more cuts would solve the problems.

“We’re down to the bare essentials now,” Purnell said. “We can’t keep running this school like we’ve been running it. We have to run it like a business.”

However, she agreed with others that she felt the board was “pushed against the wall.”

Selburn said a reason for his vote against the budget was because he had issues regarding a personnel matter concerning who would be moved into a second social worker position that is currently vacant. He was concerned about a plan that he felt would not be best for students.

“We’re moving around employees like chess pieces. … I don’t think that’s best for the kids,” Selburn said.