To the Editor:
I read with much appreciation the editorial in the Jan. 15 Grosse Pointe News, “School tax request begs questions,” because those are the very same questions your Grosse Pointe School Board has struggled with in its deliberation “to ask, or not to ask.”
As residents of Grosse Pointe also, we are very sensitive to the issue of tax increases. The simple fact is we don’t have many options left in attempting to shield our excellent education program from reduction in quality. One would find it difficult to quarrel with the success of our students, whether it be measured by MEAP or ACT/SAT scores, college admissions, or life skills support for those who don’t travel the college path. The question is, “Can we continue that same success?”
As the state budget crisis loomed ever darker, and reductions in state aid become a reality, the school administrators and board members have made reductions to the operating budgets of a collective $5.3 million over the last two years. Further, reductions in fund equity (the rainy day fund, as it’s often referred to) have also been affected.
The classroom, for the most part, has been shielded from these reductions due to the creative alternatives developed by the administrators from all the schools and central office.
The reductions that have been made have not been obvious to the community, as evidenced the other night when a speaker at the podium suggested that the reduction in the multiple “central office” positions added over recent years would easily solve the problem. Unfortunately, the speaker didn’t understand that many of the positions which were budgeted in the central office for control purposes were, in fact, teachers working hands-on in the classroom or directly with the classroom teachers.
Contrary to the impression given by the speaker that these “administrative” positions were finger-twiddlers, virtually all of them were added to directly support the classroom curriculum. As an example, positions such as language arts specialists added to each of the elementary, middle and high school levels reflected the commitment to try to ensure that each child could utilize the most basic skill in education, reading.
The other specialist positions did likewise in math, social studies, technology and science. Unfortunately, some of these positions were reduced in this year’s budget. And sadly to say, the rest of them are under review as we look forward to next year’s budget planning.
The question of “Why the election in March?” was raised. Budget decisions need to be made by the end of April due to various contractual obligations; thus a decision in March is needed to finalize those decisions.
Speaking of budget planning, the state continues to paint a bleak picture in their projections of school aid for the 04/05 school year. Because of this, the board and administrators at all levels in our schools are currently developing scenarios for spending reductions in the range of $3 million to $6 million.
Not only is the budget affected by revenue cuts, the budget is faced with continuing large increases in health care, as well as retirement pension funding assessed by the state pension fund. All nonclassroom costs are being seriously challenged, as they should be, and everyone will have to learn how to do with less. But, the vast majority of our cost lie in the classroom, and we are looking at all measures that will lessen the impact there.
One of those measures is the ghastly termed “sinking fund.” Approval of the millage request of 1 mill each year for six years, will provide additional funds to the schools of approximately $2.8 million per year, which will pay specifically for needed facility repairs and smaller improvements. By law, a sinking fund can only be used for facility repairs and improvements under specific guidelines. It cannot be used to pay salaries or other direct educational expenses. However, what the fund does allow the district to do is to redirect the school operating budget of $1.5 million, which it now spends on those types of repairs, back into instructional programs. This will help defray the impact of other anticipated reductions to educational programs.
The other $1.3 million raised by the sinking fund each year, if levied, would allow the schools to attend to repairs which have been deferred in recent times due to budget cutbacks. Historically, the school system had budgeted approximately $3 million per year for the type of programs included in the sinking fund.
As the board and administrators discussed and discussed the limited number of alternatives available to us, we could not discount having to ask the community for its support again in helping minimize the impact on our educational program. The question was raised as to why this request didn’t come at the same time as the capital bond request in September 2002.
At the time the board was discussing the bond proposal, which was close to three years ago, the state’s economic status was not in dire straits, and the provision in the school budget at that time for sinking fund type needs was felt to be sufficient. Asking for more than the district perceived was needed at that time was not fiscally responsible. Furthermore, it would have been imprudent to ask voters to finance over the 25-year life of the bond, projects of an ongoing nature or having a useful life of 10 to 12 years.
These comments cannot begin to answer all the questions that are rightfully asked. All we can ask is that you do raise those questions, so that you can be as informed as possible when you make your decision on March 16.
More information will be forthcoming to all households through mailings and information articles in the various presses.
There will be several open public forums scheduled over the next two months with presentations and question and answer sessions.
The Education Channel 20 will show a Power Point presentation covering many of the questions. Presentations are now being made at all the schools though their local PTOs.
You can also contact school administrators or your board members with questions.
Grosse Pointe School Board
Taxpayer and Paren
January 28, 2004