Voters asked to restore millagePublished 10:48am Thursday, April 25, 2013
Lewis Cass Intermediate School District will ask Cass County voters Nov. 5 to restore .4709 of a mill to replace approximately $728,376 in the special education budget starting with the 2013-14 fiscal year.
This .4709 of a mill would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $23.55 per year.
The 20-year request runs through 2032.
LCISD Supt. Robert Colby told the Dowagiac Board of Education April 22 that Cass County has the lowest total taxable value of any county in southwest Michigan, levying the lowest millage rate for special education programs among the same counties.
Restoring the countywide millage rate to its original 2.5 mills would “stabilize” the special education budget and accompanying services while avoiding burdening already-stressed local school district budgets, which otherwise will be obliged to pay costs mandated by state and federal regulations that cannot be reduced further.
The LCISD serves 7,011 students from Dowagiac, Cassopolis, Edwardsburg and Marcellus, with 2.2317 mills (.2026 general fund, 2.0291 special education) generating $3,222,235.34.
Berrien County, with 20 districts, levies 2.3699 mills (.1745 general fund and 2.1954 special education) generating $17,066,658.78 for 25,944 students.
Van Buren County, with 12 districts and 16,275 students, levies 5.9728 mills, including .1414 general fund, 3.3321 special education and 2.4993 vocational education, raising $20,989,454.02. Kalamazoo County levies 4.5416 mills, Allegan County 4.1217.
“Special education is the lion’s share of what we do,” Colby said. Fifty years ago the first countywide millage passed for half a mill. Twenty-six years ago a new levy, 2.5 mills, was approved, but since then Headlee tax-limitation amendment rollbacks whittled that amount by almost half a mill and more than $700,000.
Colby said over the past two decades, the county’s total student population has declined by almost 12 percent, but the number of special needs students remains steady.
“This trend simply means a higher percentage of students in our county are identified as special needs students,” Colby said. “The real challenge in our special populations has been a dramatic rise in the incidence of autism.”
The number of children identified with autism spectrum disorder increased 85 percent in 12 years.
These students “require intensive, highly-structured programming,” he said, “often necessitating one-on-one attention. This changing population among special needs children poses obvious budgetary challenges.”
LCISD’s 2012-13 general fund budget contains $3,202,664 revenues and $3,165,455 expenditures. The $37,209 surplus, closing a $125,000 deficit, would leave a year-end fund balance of $1,765,979.
The preliminary 2013-14 spending plan is based on $3,136,961 revenues and $3,185,580 expenditures, or a $48,619 deficit which would shrink the fund balance to $1,717,360.
“We reduced the last couple remaining (custodial and maintenance) positions,” Colby said. “We continue to get leaner. Going forward, our general ed director position will be reduced to half time next year. One of our basic assumptions is that property tax revenue will be flat, with a slight reduction in personal property tax revenue,” offsetting a slight increase in general tax revenue.
Due to sequestration, “We will realize reductions in federal funding,” Colby continued. “This budget was finalized last Thursday with a five-percent reduction, but we’ve learned since it’s likely to be 10 percent because of the timing of when it’s implemented. Our Great Start school readiness program, with two sections here in Dowagiac, is in there, along with family intervention services. We manage five federal grant projects in a four-county area, St. Joseph, Cass, Van Buren and Berrien. One of the biggest things going on financially is our discretionary money from the state, Section 81 money, which is comparable to student foundation allowance, we have to transfer the bulk of that, $200,000, from general education to mandated special education. Nothing discretionary is offered.”
The special education budget this year is $8,157,910, $8,191,084 next year.
There is a $139,921 surplus projected, but a $114,775 deficit seen for 2013-14.
The fund balance will fall below $2 million.
“This year, for the first time ever, the ISD had to borrow money for cash-flow purposes,” Colby said. “We borrowed about $550,000 short-term. We finished on a positive note by reducing special education expenditures by over $600,000. Most of that is in transportation by doing things differently. Five positions were filled with substitutes. With no room to reduce and keep local districts like Dowagiac compliant, our two options are to raise additional revenue or to send you bills. We don’t want to do that.”
Colby emphasized, “This isn’t a special education issue, but an every kid issue. This is an opportunity for us to send you some money to pay for your special education programs and divert money you’re currently using back to general education. We serve the most needy, critically handicapped families in our county” at centers such as Brookside Learning Center, North Pointe Center in Dowagiac for older students, plus five centers inside Cassopolis Public Schools — three at Sam Adams and two at Ross Beatty.