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Schools of choice shrinks, budget shortfall grows

May 04, 2011 - Brandon Twp.- The day after one school board committee discussed how they might handle a budget shortfall of $2,584,171, another board committee formed a recommendation that would increase that deficit by $241,428.

At the finance committee meeting Monday night, Acting Executive Director of Fiscal Affairs Steve Lenar said the school board would need to make nearly $2.6 million in reductions to keep a fund balance of just 6.04 percent, far below the 12-15 percent fund balance that boardmembers have aimed for in the past.

On Tuesday, the student-parent relations committee met and decided upon recommendations regarding schools of choice that included only accepting schools of choice students from Kindergarten through ninth grade. Eliminating new SOC students for grades 10-12 will mean a loss of nearly a quarter million dollars to the district. The school board will decide whether to approve the recommendation at their next meeting, set for 6:30 p.m., May 9, at the central district office, 1025 S. Ortonville Road.

District officials have been dreading school funding cuts proposed by Governor Rick Snyder. Lenar said Monday that of three different state budget proposals— one from Snyder, one from the Senate and one from the House, the one most likely to pass is a House proposal that would ultimately mean a loss of $426 per-pupil in funding, or more than $1.4 million based on the current student count of about 3,360.

Combined with an expected loss of students, other decreases in revenue and increases in expenses, Lenar said it is not realistic to expect to not dip into the fund balance and of several plans he offered, he favored one that would leave the fund balance at 6.04 percent, necessitating the reduction of nearly $2.6 million from the 2011-2012 budget.

"We have to go to the employees for some, make program changes," said Lenar. "There will be an operating deficit of just under $700,000. While this looks grim, we have chosen to use the education jobs money (federal stimulus funds totaling $756,743) for 2011-2012. That falls off for 2012-2013. With health insurance and retirement, the things we're looking at now are only going to get worse in 2012-2013. We're sacrificing the fund balance, employees are sacrificing more, and we're changing and reducing programs."

Superintendent Lorrie McMahon distributed a list at the finance committee meeting for possible budget reductions that included elimination of non-instructional paraprofessionals (savings of $112,225), all athletic busing ($50,000), clerks ($112,225), and media support ($83,271). However, the changes that she expected to get the most savings from could not be discussed, as they would be concessions from the Brandon Education Association, the teachers union with which the board is currently in negotiations.

"Everything is on the table, nothing is sacred," she said. "We cut so much last year, we don't have much to go to again... We need to look back at contracting— in custodial, the savings would be considerable."

In pursuing more than $3 million in budget cuts last year, district officials had considered privatizing both custodial services and busing, but ultimately worked out concessions from the unions that saved hundreds of thousands of dollars and avoided outsourcing jobs.

At the May 2 finance committee meeting, McMahon also said the district would save about $750,000 by closing a school; however, significant renovations would have to be done to another building, since none of them have the capacity to take on the extra load of students that would result from shuttering a school.

Other options mentioned included scaling back the aquatics and fitness center operations and consolidating some services with the township's recreation department, as well as charging for arts programs. When Board Trustee Luke Frye asked if cutting band or athletics was a possibility, McMahon replied that it's always a possibility.

"How close?" he asked.

"Very," she responded.

But Lenar noted that if these programs aren't available here, students will go elsewhere.

"It doesn't take more than a loss of 50-60 students and you haven't saved a dime," he said. "Kids and parents are portable. It's easy to go somewhere else."

Indeed, the Brandon School District is well aware of how easy it is. The district has benefitted financially from drawing kids here who reside in other districts through the schools of choice program. This school year, the district has 392 schools of choice students, and the issue has raised controversy over the past several months. Proponents cite the revenue schools of choice students bring to the district—roughly $2.9 million— as well as the diversity that results. Critics are concerned about behavior problems from SOC students, lower test scores, and lower property values (people don't live in the district or pay taxes here, but can still gain the benefit of the schools).

During the student-parent relations committee meeting May 3, McMahon noted that the district can reject SOC students with behavior problems, but can't reject them based on grades or ability.

"We can't look at kids and say, 'You're ready to come here' or 'You're not,'" she said. "That's not what we're about. We're here to educate kids."

The committee is making four recommendations: that schools of choice registration take place only in the fall, with no second or third trimester registrations; SOC students will take a placement test for language and math after being accepted to the district; schools of choice will be reviewed yearly at the end of October; and, most significantly, that Kindergarten through ninth grade will be the only entry points for schools of choice students. No new SOC students will be accepted in 10th, 11th or 12th grades.

These recommendations, if accepted by the school board, would be effective this fall and will result in a loss of $241,428 in the 2011-2012 school year alone. Further losses will be realized in subsequent years.

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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