March 22 02:38 AM

Declining enrollment adds to school woes

Almont School District tightens budget in light of more state cuts

Students head for buses at end of school day at Orchard Primary School in Almont. School officials have been tightening belts in anticipation of the potential loss of $850,000 in per-pupil funding from the state. photo by Tom Wearing.

November 25, 2009
ALMONT — Just as funding for K-12 education is about to be reduced by at least $165 per student, declining enrollment further exacerbates budget woes for school officials.

In Almont, school board President Nancy Boxey said the district hit a high-water mark four years ago, when student enrollment swelled to more than 1,900.

Since then, student numbers have steadily decreased, resulting in a current enrollment of 1,745 in grades K-12.

Boxey said the district has 60 fewer students this year than last, which means more tough decisions ahead for school officials hoping to balance the budget without cutting vital programs.

"We had budgeted for 25 fewer students this year," said Boxey, "but we hadn't anticipated having more than double that number. It will mean a huge reduction in our foundation grant.

"The reality is that as enrollment declines we get declining revenue," she said. "It's like a double whammy."

Before the current year, the board was able to meet its budget and maintain programs by using money from the district's once-bountiful fund balance.

Boxey said those days appear to be over, as the fund balance has dwindled to less than 10 percent. School auditors recommend a minimum fund balance of 15-20 percent.

"At our last meeting, we approved using $450,000 out of the fund balance," said Boxey. "So we were at more than $650,000 in deficit spending."

That figure does not reflect the consequences of Gov. Jennifer Granholm's expected mid-year cut of an additional $127 per student from the School Aid Fund. State legislators had until Nov. 21 to eliminate the shortfall and prevent the proposed mid-year cut. That date has since passed without action by legislators.

Schools Supt. Steve Zott noted that states do not have the same luxury of running at a deficit as the federal government does.

"The governor has to balance the state's budget," said Zott. "She decided to put the situation back in the hands of the legislature.

"The (Michigan) House Appropriations Committee floated an idea to use remaining stimulus money," said Zott. "There wasn't support for that idea in the Senate. They all say they don't want the cut, but they can't agree. Right now they aren't even willing to talk about it."

As bad as things are, Zott worries that things could get worse next year.

"We feel that the per-pupil amount will be reduced again next year by another several hundred dollars," Zott said. "Families are having tough times. There is less money being spent and fewer dollars generated in sales and income taxes. That means less money for schools. Crunch times are upon us."

Boxey said Zott and the school board have done what they can to cut costs and preserve educational programs.

Cost-cutting efforts have included switching to a part-time (versus full time) transportation supervisor; eliminating a school administrator; using one library media specialist to oversee all four schools; pay-to-play price increases; increased ticket prices at sporting events; and reductions in transportation costs.

"We've tried to do what we can without hurting programs," said Boxey. "We've been deficit spending for the last several years. But eighty-six percent of our budget is personnel and we're at the point where cutting becomes the option."

She said ongoing uncertainty about forthcoming foundation grants prohibits school boards from making timely budgetary decisions.

"That's the impact of not knowing what we have to operate with and having to make cuts mid-stream," Boxey lamented. "The state needs to find a stable mechanism for funding education. They also have to realign their funding to match the timetables when school districts formulate their own budgets.

"We don't have any fluff in our budget," she continued. "All of our programs have value. There are no easy answers or quick fixes, and everything we do affects the kids."

Tom Wearing started at the Tri-City Times in 1989, covering the Village of Capac as a beat reporter. He later served stints as assistant editor and editor. Today, he covers Imlay City and Almont as a staff writer. He enjoys music and plays drums and sings with various musical groups in the Detroit Metropolitan area.
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