State halts cuts to schools, future still uncertainPublished 10:44am Friday, December 11, 2009
By JESSICA SIEFF
Niles Daily Star
Niles Community Schools’ Board of Education plans Monday to pass budget amendments in the shadow of a $165 cut per-student in state funding.
And up until Thursday afternoon, school officials were expecting to see a second wave of cuts, an additional $127 per student, passed down when school aid payments were made to school districts statewide Dec. 20.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm announced Thursday that those cuts would be put off for the time being, the decision apparently due to “school districts spending less than authorized in 2009 and because of an unexpected increase in non-homestead property tax values,” a statement read.
It is the latest turn in what has become a bit of a roller coaster of decreased funding for school districts across the state and here at home, and though the pause might seem like a relief to school officials everywhere, the feeling inside many districts is likely nothing near at ease.
“In my entire career it has never been, the mountain in front of us has never been so monumental,” Niles Superintendent Doug Law said Thursday morning, prior to Granholm’s announcement.
Having just returned from Lansing, Law said he had heard of possibly seeing a third cut in January, though nothing has been confirmed.
The district’s school board has decided to “absorb” the cuts via its fund balance, which – prior to the announcement – was to the tune of more than $2 million, about half of the total balance that is a little more than $4 million.
Will the use of the fund balance put the district in a compromising position?
“We feel fortunate that our fund balance is the most it has ever been,” Law said.
Those sentiments were echoed by school board president Dana Daniels.
School board trustee Jeff Curry acknowledged the strain the constant talk of cuts is putting on the district.
“Losing significant fund balance this year will put continued pressure on us to trim expenses as our savings account and Federal stimulus money will not be there to prop us up,” Curry said. “In addition, the word from Lansing is that we have not seen the end of the cuts. In fact next year cuts may even be greater. So, we have to take a very deep look at expense cuts now.”
Regardless of just how much the state decides to take away from schools, this year or next, it’s already enough to put school board officials to work, looking at what kind of cuts they’ll have to make to manage under tighter financial conditions.
The district may be able to squeak by this year without layoffs or significant program cuts or changes to buildings and offerings, but Law said next year will likely be very different.
“Our district will have to make major changes,” he said.
Cuts have been estimated to range between $300 to $600 less per student.
“When looking at cutting programs, buildings etc. to deal with these cost reduction ideas, the board with the help of the staff will prioritize the suggested cuts based on the greatest possible impact to the students, and then begin to peel away – like an onion – at the lowest priority suggestions and work our way toward the things we feel cannot be touched,” Curry said. “This is much easier said than done. But we realize it has to be done.”
Law said how the district currently utilizes its buildings, the services they offer, positions and programs are all on the table and being looked at, as if with a fine tooth comb to see what may have to be cut and what kind of impact that could have.
As the board searches for its own answer as to what next year will look like for the district, Daniels said informing the public of those considerations will be of the utmost importance.
“When we do have the contingencies in front of us,” he said, in order to prepare students, teachers, staff and parents it would be necessary to “that we go public with those.
“Because of the magnitude of what we’re dealing with, the public needs to know,” he said.
“Everyone involved staff, teachers, students and community have to be prepared for a new school system, and a new way for us to educate,” Curry said. “We may be returning to a time where we will only be able to afford to focus on core curriculum. Reading, writing, math, etc.
“This challenge can actually be handled much easier than one would expect, but it will take some sacrifice by all involved,” he said. “The board recently reviewed our school systems key performance indicators, and we have a lot to be proud of.”