School district weighing deep cutsPublished 9:44am Tuesday, November 3, 2009
By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News
Painful cuts await the Dowagiac Board of Education.
With the prospect looming of slashing anywhere from $980,000 to $1.7 million for the 2010-2011 school year, the school board at Pathfinder alternative education center Monday night began prioritizing for the administration.
Personnel make up 85 percent of the budget, so will be unavoidable.
Both labor contracts are up this year.
“We have got to make some hard decisions in the next year or two,” said Superintendent Peg Stowers, noting that districts across Michigan are grappling with state aid foundation reductions as deep as $400 to $700 per student in the next fiscal year on top of $165 this school year and another $127 expected mid-year of 2009-2010.
“Michigan is going to be looking at this problem the next three to five years,” Stowers said, referring to an e-mail received Friday from state Rep. Sharon Tyler, R-Niles.
“Freshmen legislators,” such as herself and state Rep. Matt Lori, R-Constantine, have been told to solve the funding problem.”
Kalamazoo is resorting to social studies “lecture classes” for 90 students. Portage eliminated elementary counselors second semester.
“Every district’s been doing things a little differently depending on where they are in the financial situation,” she said. “Schoolcraft’s superintendent said he would leave if all the athletics were cut. There has to be a balanced program. Lakeshore dropped NCA (North Central Association accreditation).”
“We need to keep classes as small as possible,” board member Sherry File said. “Support staff, administration, those things are very helpful, but we’ve got to talk about negotiating less money for teachers and administrators. I think it’s better to cut deep and add on later, if we can.”
“Negotiated pay cuts,” agreed Larry Seurynck. “That’s got to be on the table. There’s no way anybody’s going to get a pay raise this year.”
File also said having one principal divide time between two buildings and perhaps closing another building also should be considered “with everyone leaving Michigan for a job.”
All programs should be re-evaluated for relevance, Michelle Helmuth said.
“What about transportation?” asked Bill Lawrence. “Should we be providing transportation to and from school?”
Pupil projections will be made again in about February, but Davis noted that previous estimates, based on birth rates, “show a declining enrollment for this district each year until 2013-2014.”
Stowers, File and Helmuth recently attended a gloomy school board association meeting in Lansing with state Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan.
“He does not support consolidation of districts,” Helmuth said, “but services, such as busing or maintenance. It was very disheartening to have a class on ‘it’s not a bad thing to go bankrupt.’ There was nothing proactive.”
Stowers recalled Kalkaska 10 years ago closing its doors in March when money ran out.
“The state didn’t do anything,” she said. “The only issues which occurred were teachers did not get their full year credit for retirement and seniors had a hard time getting into college because transcripts weren’t complete. Other than that, there were no penalties. To this day, Kalkaska, which is a large rural area, has not reinstated busing.”
“Our top priority should be maintaining a high level of balanced education, which includes fine arts, athletics and technology,” Helmuth said.
Dowagiac shares its school nurse and auto shop with Cassopolis, contracts with the Kalamazoo RESA (Regional Education Service Association) consortium with 16 other districts for payroll processing and privatized substitute teaching, offered online classes and vocational-technical training through Van Buren Skills Center in Lawrence.
“It’s really hard to identify savings in consolidation,” Stowers said.
She and Assistant Superintendent for Business and Operations Hal Davis evaluated a scenario where Dowagiac and Cassopolis merged, with one superintendent and an assistant to oversee the other district.
“Let’s say we eliminate the Dowagiac principals and Cass principals have two buildings,” Stowers said. “The savings was less than what it would cost just to have the Cass administrative team stay. There was no savings.
“For us, it has not been a spending problem, it’s a revenue problem. As our enrollment has declined and teachers have retired, we have kept pace and looked really diligently at whether we need to replace that teacher. We have cut things along the way.
“While we’re talking about these reductions, we also have to talk about a global education for kids. We can’t say, ‘For the next five years we can’t afford any technology or any new textbooks.’ I guarantee you we’re going to need some new buses before the next five years. It’s hard, but you have to spend while you’re conserving.
“And whatever you do to your district forces parents to make choices about where they want their kids to go. You have the potential of increasing your declining enrollment by choice if they don’t feel they can get what they need in this school district.”
Stowers told Seurynck, “We looked at grade consolidation when we closed McKinley,” such as a K-2 building or a 3-4 building. “Geographically that’s pretty tough for us because somebody has to shuttle out to Sister Lakes,” 12 miles from town. “But we’ll have to take a look at that again if we’re going to potentially look at a building closure. If we had to make a reduction (in athletics), we’d be better off making it at the freshman level than the middle school to start fundamentals.”
Stowers indicated she and Athletic Director Greg Younger discussed an “athletic drop-off only,” delivering teams to away games, then returning the bus immediately to save on driver layover costs. Players would ride home with parents. “Saturdays now, we rarely provide a bus for the wrestling team.”
“We’re really going to have to focus on what our core purpose is. Unfortunately,” Lawrence said, “that may mean lots of things go by the wayside. It’s going to be a very difficult situation because things aren’t costing less for them, just like they’re not costing less for us. Everything goes up – utilities, health insurance, co-pays. It’s not as though teachers are paid exorbitant sums. They have families and mortgages and fixed costs. That’s going to be a tough sell.”
“As much as they do not want to have large class sizes, they’d rather have a class of 35 than less money,” Davis said.
“For everything we decide there are going to be pros and cons,” Stowers said. “I worry about parents who are laid off who really wouldn’t have viable transportation or gas money to get their kids to school.”
“We’re going to hurt people no matter what we do,” said President Randy Cuthbert. “That’s the sad thing about the whole thing. We’re supposed to be in recovery and we’re going deeper.”
The discussion will continue at the Nov. 16 board meeting.