Ann Arbor schools to employ 2-pronged approach to address $10-$16 million deficit for 2013-14
AnnArbor.com file photo
By this time last fall, the district already had declared a target of needing to cut $14 million from its approximately $183-million operating budget for the current school year. Also, AAPS had hosted two community forums by mid-November to seek the public’s input and suggestions on how and where to cut.
This November, budget discussions at the school board level have just begun and school officials are less clear on the exact financial situation the district will be in come fiscal year 2014.
Deputy Superintendent of Operations Robert Allen said he expects the deficit to be in the range of $10 million to $16 million.
The school board started off its discussion at Wednesday’s Committee of the Whole meeting by weighing how soon to reach out to the public and in what format public input should be sought this budget cycle.
“There are millions of things we don’t know until very late,” said President Deb Mexicotte. “Every year we say we want to start (the budget process) earlier to satisfy the public being able to weigh in and to satisfy our planning needs and we always end up in exactly the same place at exactly the same time.
“What we need to know now is can we accelerate this process is there something more substantive that can be done sooner.”
The school board decided not to focus on the cuts this year. A consensus was reached that AAPS cannot just keep cutting its way out of its financial constraints year after year, that something different has to be done.
Mexicotte said the list of potential budget reductions is the same as it has been for the past several years. Transportation is there, as is redistricting and closing elementary buildings, sharing principals across multiple schools, combining or restructuring the alternative high school programs and contract negotiations with unions.
So, a two-pronged approach was established, with the school board heading up a “campaign” to reach community members. The campaign would be very similar to an election campaign, with school board members pounding the pavement and attending organization and parent meetings to connect with people. This would flip the district’s old method of hosting forums and making the public come to it.
The board set a goal of devising the central message and components of the campaign by Jan. 10 and hitting the trail after that. Components discussed Wednesday included educating the public on the district’s budget situation and some to-be-determined ultimate direction for the district to undertake, as well as supporting the schools via a countywide education millage, a sinking fund millage renewal or donating to the AAPS Educational Foundation to start an endowment.
“It has to have a clear vision for the education our kids will get and we have to articulate it for people so they understand not just how it benefits kids but how it benefits the community,” said Vice President Christine Stead. “We have to have an answer to the question, ‘What’s in it for me?’”
Part of the campaign also could include reaching out to local businesses and corporations and asking for financial assistance. Trustee Susan Baskett advocated finding businesses that would have a vested interest in seeing a program succeed and essentially asking them to fund that program for the next five years or some other predetermined timeframe, similar to what IMRA did for the Pioneer High School planetarium.
While the board works on a campaign, the administration has been charged with developing a list, with dollar amounts, of the first $10 million to $12 million in budget cuts that could be considered for 2013-14. The board asked to see a first peek of this list at its Committee of the Whole meeting Dec. 12 and then a more substantive look at a board meeting in January.
District officials said specifics about the 2013-14 budget situation will not be known until after the state’s annual revenue estimating conference in January or February and that even then, Ann Arbor’s financials could still change depending on the budget Gov. Rick Synder proposes for the School Aid Fund for fiscal year 2014.
Stead said there also is a “frightening” set of bills that have been proposed in the State Legislature that could destroy traditional public education. One in particular, House Bill 5923, would permit “any thing,” a business, a municipality, etc., to become a school and to educate children.
“School districts in this state are going to be a thing of the past if these guys keep passing this kind of legislation,” Stead said.
She said her understanding of the bill is that it would establish the concept of anytime, anywhere, any place and any pace learning that Snyder has been pushing since taking office.
Her concerns are that not only would this force school districts to become focused on pupil accounting rather than children’s education, it would cause traditional districts to continue to rapidly lose more students and, as a result, funding than already has been the trend across the state.
Stead said the bill would allow a parent to send his or her child to one school district for part of the child’s curriculum and then to another district for a completely different part, causing schools to spend a significant amount of time tracking where each pupil goes and accepting credits and charting GPAs from a myriad programs.
Trustee Andy Thomas said Ann Arbor Public Schools is trying to grow its Schools of Choice program to attract new enrollees through the district but has struggled to really meet its goals.
He said he doesn’t think the district has a good understanding of what it needs to do to market to families enrolling their kids in private or charter schools.
Stead said rather than focusing on cuts, she would like administrators to look seriously at program reform and new educational models and methods, such as “flipping” classrooms in certain courses where it made sense. She said this would entail perhaps using something like Khan Academy’s online lectures and have students watch the instruction at home and use class time to engage with teachers and their peers to apply the lessons and to get help in areas where they are struggling.
“If we were to do it in certain content areas, it might be OK to have 50 kids in a class and reduce staff but get better performances from students,” Stead said.
She said elementary schools may not be a great place to reduce any more teaching staff, but a flip classroom — or a lecture-style class, as Trustee Simone Lightfoot suggested — could be possible in the middle or high schools and be a better way to make cuts, rather than the equal FTE reductions across all buildings the district has done in the past.
“Building by building doesn’t look programmatic so much and we can’t take up to $20 million out of our budget without reducing FTEs. We’re about where we can go with fund equity,” Stead said, adding that 85 percent of the district’s budget each year is employees.
Ultimately, new charter schools and, if HB 5923 passes, “any fast food restaurant that happens to be an achievement center,” Mexicotte said, is the district’s competition for students.
“So I feel like we’re stuck between a rock and a rock and a rock and a rock and a hard place,” she said. “It’s the same every single year. And what we have (as a district) is something this community likes more or less just the way it is.”
She said it’s difficult to be in a position where the district needs “shiny and new” to stay afloat financial and to attract students, but yet “so much of what we have been working on we believe have been working and working well.”