(Crystal A. Proxmire, June 28, 2013)
Ferndale Schools got some surprises in recent months that took their toll on the district’s finances, resulting in layoffs to teachers and secretarial staff as part of this year’s budget process.
A $229,000 quarterly water bill for the high school was a shock, especially since they normally spend between $60,000 and $80,000 for a whole year.
Enrollment shortfalls, particularly at the Digital Learning Center (DLC) and a dispute with the state over student counts at the DLC reduced expected revenue. In January the board announced that DLC enrollment was over 400 students less than expected. Mid-year cuts were made, including three teacher layoffs.
On top of that, there was a loss of over $100,000 in Federal grant money due to the government’s sequestration, $136,000 from local tax revenue, and $180,000 from the decision not to renew the consulting contract with Superintendent Gary Meier’s consulting company, Innovative Consulting in Education.
These and other factors led to a budget that was $1,900,000 less than anticipated when the school board approved a $37,840,805 budget at a special meeting June 27.
The budget includes the loss of 9.5 teaching positions and 5 secretarial positions in the schools. Cutting two elementary school teachers, 1.5 Spanish teachers, and 6 secondary teachers is expected to save the district $690,000. The loss of 5 secretaries accounts for $315,000. There is also the cut of one administration position at $89,000 and a part time cleaning position at $31,000.
About fifteen residents came to the meeting, including three Ferndale Schools secretaries. Brad Parks, Robert Bokram, and Nathan Schoenfeld spoke in defense of school secretaries, pointing out that secretaries are key points of contact with the public, stable figures in the lives of children and parents, and crucial to school security. “If you want to know what goes on in the school you go to the secretaries,” Parks said. “I highly recommend not cutting these positions.”
Michelle Sibula, who has been a secretary with the school district for ten years, said that safety is an issue. “One of the big concerns in safety in our buildings,” she said. “Down on the ground, in the trenches, we have things happen every day… It’s a very scary situation when a person could be out of control. They come into the room where you are, and you can’t get out, and you’re by yourself… We love our jobs but we don’t want to die doing it. At least having two people in an office provides a level of safety.”
Though the budget had to be finalized to meet the state’s deadline, there is still hope that money can be found in time to avoid the layoffs or to recall employees later in the fall.
The district is also challenging the enrollment counts for the DLC accepted by the state. Because DLC is a web-based instructional program, taking attendance on count day is not enough. The state has a more rigorous set of standards to ensure districts are educating the number of youth they say they are. With each student coming with a $7,701 payment from the state, the stakes are high.
Over 100 students were not counted fully, or at all, by the county auditors on behalf of the state. About 60 of them were denied funding completely. Ferndale Schools continued to educate them, though they did not get the income to do so. The state requires that digital learning students make ten logins, and that there are five mentor contacts during the audit time. Disqualifications occurred because some students only checked in 9 times, and because mentors sometimes checked in with parents rather than students. Another problem is that the language between the state guidelines and the guidelines used by the county auditor are different. In a traditional school setting, the district would get a partial payment for students who attended part of the day’s classes. But in this case they were denied the entire amount. “In final analysis you’re not interpreting the law correctly,” said Superintendent Meier. “If we win the appeal, we can count the FTEs [full time enrollments], and it will change how FTEs are counted going forward.” The appeal will likely take a couple of months.
Another possibility is that some secretaries will accept a buyout offer. Meier is hopefully that some will, but none can be officially counted until after July 26 because there is a window of time where teachers are allowed to accept a buyout and then change their minds.
Enrollment figures also give the potential for some wiggle room, although the school board voted in March to cap the percentage of students coming from other areas through schools of choice, and limited new school of choice enrollments to grades K-3. This decision cost the district an estimated $259,000, though school board members are hopeful that limiting newcomers to the higher grades will help provide a more consistent learning environment as students grow together through the years. In a March interview, School Board President Jim O’Donnell explained “The longer a student is with Ferndale Public Schools, the better his or her academic results. We are not just focused on the number of schools of choice students, but with maximizing their opportunities for success by keeping them in our district for most of their public school years. That stability, of course, should make all of our students more successful through better peer relationships and school culture.”
The district is disputing the $229,000 water bill with the city. Meier believes the bill is an error. “They’ve replaced our meters twice,” he said. “It’s not like we empty the swimming pool and fill it every day.”
Layoff notices will not be given until late July. Meier explained that if there are any changes in the amount of money the district has to work with, the jobs may be saved without having to reconvene and vote on any changes to the budget because the administration has the authority to do so as long as there aren’t changes to the bottom line. He said decisions are made based on “what’s going to provide the best product come the start of school next year.”
School Board Trustee Raylon Leaks-May was among the trustees who expressed the desire to save teacher and secretary jobs if the money becomes available. “We are under pressure to approve this budget tonight,” she said. “But we will continuously bring up what you brought up tonight.”
School Board Vice President Karen Twomey assured the secretaries that their jobs were “the last put on the list,” and would be “the first to be taken off,” referring to the cuts.
Budget information will be posted on the Ferndale Schools website at http://www.ferndaleschools.org/administration/budget.html.