Source: Sherman Publications

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No layoffs
School district bucks local trend

by Lance Farrell

May 23, 2012

While other school districts in Oakland County are flashing pink slips around, that's one color you'll not see in Oxford Schools this spring. According to Nancy Latowski, deputy superintendent for human resources at Oxford Schools, no layoffs are expected in the Oxford school district anytime soon.

As reported in The Citizen, nearly 45 teachers could be pink-slipped in the Brandon and Goodrich districts. Similar rumors are emanating from Lake Orion and Clarkston school districts.

According to Steve Hendershott, President of the Brandon chapter of the Michigan Education Association, Lake Orion schools will see something on the order of "20-35 pink slips," while Clarkston will probably see up to "twenty teachers laid off."

Ortonville Schools, Hendershott continued, have been "bare-bones for five years," so there's nowhere else in the budget for administrators to cut in response to more austerity prescriptions from state legislatures.

In stark contrast, Oxford Community Schools has "incredibly strong" staff retention, Oxford MEA President Jim Gibbons said. People "don't leave here because they don't like teaching here," he emphasized; "the only teachers leaving are retirees."

Latowski points to very positive student enrollment projections for the strong staff retention. According to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, Oxford is the only district in the county expected "to be larger in 2015 than it was in 2005." In terms of employment and retention, the "outlook for teachers coming in to Oxford is very good," said Latowski.

Gibbons finds the seeds of Oxford's present good fortune in the courageous and counter-intuitive approach taken by the Oxford Board of Education in the wake of the economic recession. Instead of down-sizing, cutting benefits, or limiting opportunities, the Oxford district did just the opposite.

While Brandon cut student opportunity, Oxford opted for new sports like lacrosse, swimming, skiing, and tennis. While Clarkston decided against expanding student experiences, Oxford sprouted new instrumental and choral options among its fine arts offerings.

Oxford has also added the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum, Virtual Academy, and early college programs to its scholastic quiver.

These programs cost more money to implement, so one can see why districts may balk at first blush. However, according to Gibbons, it is precisely the foresight and courage exhibited by Oxford to extend instead of retracting like other districts that has placed them in the solid financial situation in which they now find themselves.

These exciting opportunities "attract new students," Gibbons said. He said that Oxford school enrollment is "consistently growing year after year," and this means more money is available to afford the better programs.

The Michigan Department of Education corroborates Gibbons analysis. Oxford community schools has seen enrollment spike "every year since 2007, and in the 2011-2012 school year, Oxford grew by 250 student," wrote Michael Van Beek, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

More to the point, along with these increased student numbers comes the accompanying state dollars. The bottom line is that Oxford's fund balance "leapt from 5.7 percent to 16.2 percent of the operating budget between 2006 and 2011," said Van Beek.

One other factor contributing to Oxford's solid financial footing is the concessions union members gave to the Board of Education. Oxford teachers now pay nearly $2,000 more per year toward health care than they did at the start of the recession. Teachers also agreed to what amounts to a one year salary freeze. Taken together, the district can thank the $1 million in savings offered by professional bargaining units like the MEA for a part of its present good fortune.

Gibbons found the concessions to be good for his members, as it looks like keeping teachers employed is a good deal for those teachers. Gibbons said that Oxford is a good partner to the MEA; it reduced employee coverage costs yet still "met the needs of all employee groups."

Latowski confirmed the "great relationship" the Board has with Gibbons and the MEA. "Without their help, we likely wouldn't be in the position we are," she admitted.