May 26 • 11:56 PM

Count is in for schools

Decline in students translates to decreased state funding for kids

Schools throughout the area reported declining numbers during last Wednesday’s official count.
October 01, 2008
TRI-CITY AREA — School officials across the area had been bracing for a decline in student numbers as a result of the slow economy.

With that in mind, appropriate foresight and cautious budgeting may have softened the financial blow for local school districts.

On Wednesday, Sept. 24, schools in Imlay City, Almont, Capac and Dryden conducted their official student counts, with each showing decreases in K-12 student population.

In Imlay City, Wednesday's student count came in at 2,298 students, down 80 from last year's total of 2,378.

James Earley, assistant superintendent for Imlay City schools, said the loss was greater than expected.

"We anticipated being down, but not this far," said Earley. "On July 1, we had budgeted for a decrease of 47 students. We hadn't expected this."

Assuming per-pupil funding remains around $7,000, Earley projected a loss to the district of $220,000 in revenue from the state.

"We're waiting for the dust to settle on this," said Earley. "We'll know more at our next board meeting in October. That's when we get our auditor's report."

Even with a reduction of 33 students, Earley stresses that the "district is solvent" and no layoffs are imminent.

"If we were to cut any more teaching positions, it would hurt programs," he said. "Mr. (Supt. Gary) Richards and the school board have done an outstanding job of preparing for this."

The Imlay City school district's annual budget is about $20 million, Earley noted, with about 80 percent of that amount going toward teacher salaries and insurance.

He added that Imlay City Schools employs 260 part- and full-time people, including 130 teachers. About 200 employees receive full insurance benefit packages. Those costs recently rose by 35 percent, said Earley.

In Almont, the prognosis was slightly rosier — but only comparatively.

Schools Supt. Steve Zott said 1,814 students showed up on Wednesday, a decline of 21 students from the previous year. That will result in about $150,000 fewer dollars for the district in the 2008-09 school year.

"We thought we would be fairly stable — maybe only a couple or so down," said Zott. "This is not good. It's a hit for us budgetwise.

"The problem is that school funding is directly tied to the economy," he said. "There are no signs that it's going to turn around anytime soon."

In an effort to keep costs down while ensuring a quality education for Almont students, Zott said the district has been tightening its belt whenever and where ever possible.

"We've already postponed capital outlays; we've increased our pay-to-play to $100 per athlete, and we're down to one-and-a-half maintenance people for the whole district," said Zott. "There's only so much squeezing you can do before it begins hurting students.

"We were fortunate that during the good times, we were able to build up a strong fund balance," he said. "But the past four or five years we've been having to dip into that."

As an option, Zott said the district will look for sources of grant funding and could resort to raising money through community fundraisers.

"One thing is that we've always been blessed with the support of our community," he said. "We'll get through it."

In Dryden, schools Supt. Tom Goulette reported there were 32 fewer students in grades K-12, just about what district officials had expected.

"We're at 715 students this year," said Goulette. "That's what we had planned on. With last year's larger-than-usual graduating class, we expected to be about 30 down."

Goulette said the decrease in students means a reduction of about $215,000 in state funding. However, cuts made earlier by the board of education will save the district in excess of $115,000.

"We're having to become more efficient," said Goulette. "We accounted for the reduction through the retirement of our high school principal (Ruth Fox) and eliminating the Director of Student Services position.

"Between the two positions and by privatizing our custodial services, we were able to save money. We'll also use a little of our fund equity."

Ironically, said Goulette, by shifting to a trimester schedule this year, the district was able to add a Spanish program at the elementary school.

In Capac, Supt. Jerry Jennex said the district's K-12 student population remained fairly stable, though there were 12 fewer students in class.

"We had budgeted for 1,678 students and our head count was 1,666," said Jennex. "The number is pretty close to what was expected."

Jennex noted that the district lost 35 special education students through reorganization of the Western Area Special Education program, which includes schools in Memphis and Yale.

He said other losses can be attributed to families moving from the district, most likely for economic reasons.

"We don't think the numbers will have a significant impact on our budget or programs," said Jennex. "We had planned for this. We'll continue to do our best to serve the needs of all of our students."

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