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Budgets, student achievement highlight 2015

By: Maria Allard | C&G Newspapers | Published December 30, 2015

WARREN/CENTER LINE/STERLING HEIGHTS — The year 2015 again had local school officials closely watching their district’s financial budgets. The fiscal year for local districts runs July 1 through June 30, and school boards had to approve budgets by June 30, 2015, for the 2015-16 school year.

Educators also took pride in student and staff accomplishments, focused on student achievement, continued to use various teaching methods to help at-risk students, remained up-to-date with mandates coming from state lawmakers and kept student safety on the forefront.

Excitement could be felt throughout the community in June with graduation ceremonies to honor the class of 2015. On Oct. 2, many local students participated in National Manufacturing Day, a national campaign designed to create more awareness of the importance of the manufacturing industry to the economy. Schools also honored military veterans with various ceremonies for Veterans Day.

From early childhood education to high school graduation, here is a look back at 2015 in local school districts.

Center Line Public Schools
Learning continued at the district’s Early Childhood Center with free preschool for families that qualified. In addition, the creative curriculum to develop play-based learning continued, and educators focused their lessons on math, literacy, and social and emotional skills to prepare children for kindergarten.

At the elementary school level, Peck staff members were pleased to announce its first parent and community resource center that provided training and parent workshops. In addition, excitement was in the air as Peck recruited two teams of students to participate in the VEX Robotics Club through Nissan.

“Students are creating robots that will compete in statewide competitions throughout the year,” CLPS Superintendent Eve Kaltz said in an email.

Over at Roose, the mentorship program called the Rocketeers, in which the students study life skills, enjoyed successes. A new student orientation program led by fifth-graders was initiated, and the Lego Robotics Team also had a good year.

Crothers staff and students had a busy 2015 with the addition of a program called PlayWorks, as well as the addition of a school counselor. According to staff, the school’s theme of leadership, “Lead From Where You Stand,” proved a positive force “that drives all initiatives along with Conscious Discipline at Crothers.”

At Wolfe Middle School and Center Line High School, educators saw state scores improve for the second year in a row. Classes for STEM — which stands for science, technology, engineering and math — were popular at WMS and CLHS. Art courses in 2015 also incorporated principles of engineering design. WMS and CLHS teachers were all trained in Project Based Learning.

“Project Based Learning is one of our three school improvement strategies,” CLHS Principal Benjamin Gurk said in October. “It’s a way to make content and learning directly relative to students’ lives. It begins with a real-world problem or question.

“The students go through a process of research and collaboration to generate the solution,” Gurk said. “Ultimately, the end of the process is where they present the solution to what we would call an authentic audience. It can be the teacher, government official or business leader.”

Fitzgerald Public Schools
Budget predictions for the 2015-16 school year turned out a bit better than school officials planned. In June, district staff projected $900,000 worth of expenses over revenue and a loss of 50 students for the school year.

But when a budget amendment was completed in November, expenses were just $600,000 over revenue. The loss of students remained status quo. Superintendent Barbara VanSweden said the district will conduct another financial audit in February or March of 2016.

“We have to be cautious,” she said. “Our expenditures still exceed our revenues. We have some fund balance left to help offset some expenses.”

Fund equity — also known as a rainy day fund — in school districts basically acts as a saving account and is used in emergency situations. School officials also saw a small break in heating costs in recent weeks because of the unusually warm weather that came without major snowfall or ice.

“We haven’t had to turn on the heat as early as we normally do because of the warm weather,” VanSweden said. “We haven’t had to use salt. These things do reflect the budget. That will be reflected in the next amendment.”

There were several accomplishments to report, including the Michigan Association of Certified Public Accountants naming Fitzgerald High School teacher Ken Krause 2015 MICPA Outstanding High School Teacher.

Out of 200 entries, FHS students — under teacher John Smith — earned second and third place in the Michigan Council for Women in Technology web design competition in 2015.

“That kind of tells you about the teachers here in the district,” VanSweden said.

FHS staff proudly inducted 29 FHS juniors and seniors into National Honor Society; the Chatterton Middle School robotics teams placed fourth overall in its fall competition; and the district’s China Study Tour received a $5,000 donation from AT&T through the help of State Rep. Derek Miller, D-Warren.

The FHS Marching Band earned a first-division rating during the fall Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association competition. Something new in 2015 for FPS was the online implementation of the student registration process.

Van Dyke Public Schools
District Superintendent Joseph Pius reported that district officials did not have to make any staff or program cuts in 2015. School officials are trying to build its fund equity “a little more,” he said, adding it is currently at 6 percent.

“The board would like 10 percent,” Pius said. “We are working toward that goal. We plan accordingly. You have to say ‘no’ sometimes. We just can’t purchase something for the sake of purchasing something.”

VDPS also saw a decline in student enrollment, something that has been a constant for the past several years. With fewer students, districts received less money in per-pupil funding from the state.

“We did lose a few more students than we anticipated,” Pius said. “We budgeted for 79 less and ended up losing 160 total.”

One change Pius saw as a positive in 2015 was the transformation of the former Max Thompson alternative education school into the new Max Thompson Community Center. The center opened March 6 and now serves as a family resource center to provide a number of Macomb County services for families. The family resource center serves the south end of the county and is home to many agencies that help families.

In 2014, district officials agreed to lease 9,400 square feet of the facility. VDPS still owns the building, and Macomb County will pay for the custodial and utility services of the building. The county will not pay rent.

Another source of pride for the district in 2015 was its continued relationship with General Motors Co.

“During the summer, we have kids working with GM doing projects in the neighborhood, redoing parks,” Pius said. “It’s great for the kids that participate.”

Van Dyke educators also became acclimated to the continuous changes in school reform coming from lawmakers in Lansing.

“As a whole, they’ve embraced the changes brought to them,” Pius said. “We’re going to get done what we need to get done.”

Warren Woods Public Schools
In WWPS, the year ended on a high note fiscally.

“By time our final numbers came in, we were able to finish with a balanced budget and didn’t have to dip into our rainy day fund for the year,” Superintendent Stacey Denewith-Fici said in an email.

On another positive note, school officials did not have to make any cuts to programs, and were able to restore specials classes of art, music, physical education, media and foreign language to all three elementary schools. 

“The only staffing changes have been to continue to rightsize our staff to meet the needs of our declining student enrollment,” Denewith-Fici said.

The superintendent, however, added that 2016 will continue to be a challenge for the district “as we deal with the uncertainty of education funding from the state.” Current enrollment for WWPS is 3,248 students and the per pupil foundation allowance from the state is $7,899.

“Our 2016 budget, that was approved in June, continues to allow us to offer all of the educational programs and services that our community has come to expect from us,” Denewith-Fici stated. “I am extremely proud of our district’s commitment to student achievement. Our teachers use achievement data for their students to make informed decisions about what instructional strategies to use and how to best reach all students.”

Warren Consolidated Schools
As WCS officials continued to look at ways to cut costs, one school fell victim to budget cuts in 2015 as Fillmore Elementary was closed.

At the May 6 Board of Education meeting, the school board voted to merge elementary schools Fillmore and Black. Both schools are located in Sterling Heights and both were year-round schools, meaning the students were on a different schedule than the traditional schools.

“Unfortunately, with the continued catastrophic loss of state funding and the lack of support for traditional public schools combined with declining enrollment, the WCS Board of Education is planning the merger of Fillmore Elementary into Black Elementary for the 2015-16 school year, creating one larger, more efficient K-5 school for students and families,” WCS Superintendent Robert Livernois stated in a letter dated April 22.

Enrollment at Fillmore decreased from 362 students in 2008-09 to 218 for 2014-15. According to Livernois, Fillmore was one of the most underutilized schools in the district with very low enrollment, which presented inefficiencies that could only be eliminated through closing the school.

On June 17, Fillmore staff, students and parents gathered on the front lawn to give the school a proper send off. The Fillmore Falcons held a balloon launch to say goodbye to the neighborhood school that opened in 1969.

For the first time, in 2015, school officials offered a transitional kindergarten program for the 2015-16 school year.

Transitional kindergarten was created for students who educators felt would benefit from an additional year of growth between preschool and kindergarten, according to school officials.

The program was geared toward students who turn 5 years old after the Sept. 1 kindergarten entry deadline. Placement in the program was based on parental request, kindergarten readiness assessment and teacher recommendation.

According to school officials, the program will integrate academics with social and emotional development standards. It also will allow students to take advantage of the benefits of entering kindergarten at an older age, and will ensure that students have the opportunity for a full year of school in a student-directed active learning environment before entering kindergarten.