Washtenaw County schools begin thinking about mid-year budget cuts following millage failure
By late Wednesday afternoon, Washtenaw County school officials had begun to get over what they felt was the shock of voters handily turning down a 2-mill countywide enhancement millage request and were beginning to ponder the next steps.
The short answer of what’s coming? Everything the schools do, except that which is mandated by state law, is on the chopping block.
And while that’s the clichÃ© answer expected from school leaders in tough times, school officials were insistent changes would be coming to their districts by the middle of this school year.
When pressed, administrators in several districts, said those changes could include teacher layoffs. However, they made no guarantees of layoffs or any other cuts.
“We’re going to sit down and provide a price tag to everything we do,” said Ann Arbor school board President Deb Mexicotte. “There’s a money price tag, and there’s also an effect price tag.
“There are times when you can cut $100,000, and it doesn’t feel like $100,000. Then there’s times when you cut $100,000, and it feels like you just cut $500,000.”
Layoffs, elimination of programs and lots of other possibilities are being considered, said Chelsea Superintendent Dave Killips.
“Everything is on the table," he said. "However, our intent is not to disrupt classes this year, but make cuts where we can. Next year, cuts will certainly be to a greater degree.
“We will be taking a two-prong approach. First, we will have to work through reductions in expenditures for this year. Initially, we thought we would be a little over $1 million in the red for this year. With the reductions in funding from the state, we now find ourselves over $2 million in the red for the 2009-2010 school year.
“The second step will be to prepare for next year with more adjustments to the budget. We cannot carry another multimillion-dollar deficit into next school year. Everything we do will come under scrutiny and may be discussed for reductions as we prepare for future funding reductions from the state. “
School administrators stopped short of identifying specific programs they’d be recommending to their school boards for cuts. Instead, they have already begun working on recommendations.
"Prior to the millage vote, Ypsilanti Public Schools' leadership team has been meeting to grapple with the district's budget deficit,” spokeswoman Emma Jackson wrote in an e-mail. “If the millage had been successful, it would have relieved some of our budgetary stress, but it would not have erased the deficit.
“The failure of the millage makes a grim situation more severe. Our district has a proud educational history, and we will do everything possible to maintain a viable learning environment while taking action to resolve our budget shortfalls."
Many administrators and school board members from several different districts said they plan to hold meetings to hear from their communities about where cuts should be made.
There are plenty of ideas out there. In coffee shops, diners and in online forums, community members were already identifying areas they felt needed to be looked at.
Those ideas included getting rid of busing, except for special education students as mandated by law; making athletes pay the entire cost of playing high school sports; trimming the number of administrators at high schools and even shrinking the number of school districts in the county.
“If they want to get back to fiscal responsibility, they have to look at everything from how much they pay their teachers to how many buses they are running,” said Rick English, 45, of Ann Arbor. “They have to live within their means.”
Ann Arbor Superintendent Todd Roberts said that’s what his district is doing.
“We have to make sure our costs are in line with the revenue we have or project we will have in the coming years.”
Here is the problem districts are facing. In recent weeks, the state has made several cuts to the amount of per-pupil funding it gives to each district.
In Ann Arbor, the shortfall for this school year is $8 million.
Mexicotte said she doesn’t expect the district will be able to avoid dipping into its reserve funds to cover the shortfalls.
She expects to spend the next couple of months in those budget cut discussions for this year. They will also look for ways to increase revenue, she said.
Then, next year looms. That’s because most districts are projecting a $400 to $600 per student additional cut.
That could put Ann Arbor short another $15 million or more.
One idea not gaining much traction among local school officials is consolidating districts.
The districts had hoped to use the countywide enhancement millage to cover much of those cuts they are faced with making. In Ann Arbor, for example, the millage would have given them $11 million a year for the next five years.
But county voters decided on Tuesday they didn’t like that plan. Many voters cited an economy that has forced them to tighten their personal budgets as the reason they voted against the millage.
The 10 traditional school districts in the county all passed resolutions earlier this year asking the Washtenaw Intermediate School District to put the issue on the ballot.
WISD Superintendent Bill Miller was unavailable for comment on Wednesday, but his staff said he would be able to speak to AnnArbor.com on Thursday.
David Jesse covers K-12 education for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at davidjesse@AnnArbor.com or at 734-623-2534.