Residents unhappy with elementary school closing

‘I bet not a single individual up here wants to close Taft.’
— Jim Zang

By SUE SUCHYTA
Sunday Times Newspapers

WYANDOTTE – Residents crowded into Tuesday’s Wyandotte Public Schools Board of Education meeting in Roosevelt High School’s cafetorium night to voice their displeasure with the second proposed closing of an elementary school within a year.

Taft Elementary is poised to join McKinley, which was closed earlier this year.

School officials told residents in advance that the board would not vote at the meeting, which was a chance for them to voice concerns and have questions answered.

School Supt. Patricia Cole explained to parents that the decision to close Taft, which is estimated to save $300,000 next year, has been forced by massive revenue shortfalls. She said it was a decision that would affect student education the least.

Officials say Taft students living east of the railroad tracks and who attend through the schools of choice option would go instead to Garfield Elementary, 340 Superior Blvd., while the remaining students would move to Jefferson Elementary. 1515 15th.

Cole said no teachers would be eliminated because of the Taft closing.

“The class size will not increase,” she said. “In fact, it will even out much more equitably.”

Taft resources would be used to split teachers between Jefferson and Garfield, giving more resources to all district children.

“It makes it more cost efficient, more equitable and it is a very effective delivery system,” Cole said.

She acknowledged residents’ dismay at the closing, but said officials see at least some upside.

“Nobody likes change and nobody wants to do this,” Cole said, “but we do think it will be an improvement academically as well.”

Cost efficiencies from closing Taft will come from eliminating salaries for a principal, school secretary, building engineer and custodian, as well as utility costs.

Salary and benefit costs comprise 89 percent of the district’s budget, Cole said.

Officials have anticipated a traffic pattern problem, she said, especially at Jefferson and Wilson Middle School. She said a “drop and drive” program, modeled after the successful program at Monroe Elementary, would be implemented.

Cole said significant reductions in revenue are forcing the board to reduce costs where it can. Wyandotte received the lowest foundation grant in the state, she said, adding that declining student population decreases school district revenue, which is based on student head count.

School officials also reiterated that state aid was cut by $164 per student in the middle of the current school year, and that at-risk funds also were reduced.

Officials anticipate an even greater per-student reduction next year, Cole said, and are continuing to make reductions through attrition and the reorganization begun by closing McKinley.

Next year’s projected district budget deficit is estimated to be $4.5 million. Retirement increases of 2.47 percent, unemployment costs and 10 percent health insurance cost increases contribute to the deficit.

The district also will lose one-time revenue sources, such as federal stimulus money, that served as temporary stopgap measures but will not recur on annually.

The board has planned widespread cost cutting in response to next year’s anticipated deficit. The Taft closure, a $300,000 anticipated savings, is a small part of the anticipated budget reductions.

Cole said teacher reductions could reduce the budget by $1.2 million. Reducing high school extracurricular activities would add $300,000 in savings.

Reducing secretarial expense at the high school, as well as eliminating a security officer and half of an assistant principal salary, would create possible savings of $140,000.

Board members also are mulling proposed districtwide reductions in custodial services by going to alternate day cleaning. One of five school psychologists would be eliminated, as would an attendance officer and a technology staff member.

The district hopes to get $1 million in concessions from employees, as well as $1.2 million from an industrial facilities tax on its books that Cole said was assessed improperly.

“It’s been there about 17 years,” she said, “and we could use that figure to help offset a deficit, even though we are all reluctant to use that money.”

Cole did offer some hope for school funding, including the possibility that the state might stop an additional $268 cut per student next year.

“You know how legislation is, and politics,” Cole said. “Maybe something will happen. I don’t know what.”

State legislators are discussing a retirement incentive for public employees that she described as an “increased fee” to the district.

A federal proposal being discussed that would allocate more stimulus money to districts, Cole said, could help decrease the impact of next year’s ’s per-student state cut, and that any additional revenues could forestall some of the district’s planned cuts, including employee concessions.

“We’re hoping that the unions do give concessions, but again we want that caveat to be in there that if some of these things happen, we give it right back,” Cole said.

“All of these things give us a glimmer of hope but we can’t plan on them, We’ve got to plan on the worst case scenario so we’re ready, and then we hope some of these other things (happen).

“We’re still lobbying Lansing and trying to make it (the) best possible we can and still deliver the excellent program that we do.”

Trustee Robert Kirby asked about the use of IFT money to help balance the school budget and its impact on the district in the long term.

“My only question is, if we use that money and we have to actually spend it, what’s our plan for 2011-12?” he said. If concessions are given back and the state per-student cut doesn’t happen, Kirby wondered if officials wouldn’t be back in the position next year asking for similar concessions. “I understand that we want to take care of our staff,” he said, “but I believe our kids should come first, and no disrespect to any union member, or staff member.

“I think our plan needs to encompass more than just how to get through this next year. I think we need to try to think about that next one, because we don’t have any more buildings to close.”

Cole agreed that it “would be nice” not to tap the IFT and save it for a rainier day, but that the district shouldn’t ask employees for concessions without them understanding that the concessions are necessary.

“Hopefully, something will happen to turn around,” she said. “Every single district in this state is suffering this.

“Our long-term plan is getting through next year.”

Trustee Jerry Kupser said he did not support the Taft closing, and that concessions should be returned to employees if financial circumstances change.

“How do we bring ourselves back into alignment with other districts and bring down our costs if we’re going to give that money back?” he asked.

In response to the 10 percent pay cut being sought from coaches and club sponsors, Kupser said he would like to see the cuts made across the board, including Cole and all other administrators.

Resident William Holmes wanted to know if vacant school buildings would ever be sold to charter schools, which further could decrease student head count, and subsequently funding.

Cole said officials have been very careful to avoid that, and that a community agency has shown interest in Taft.

Dave Shalda expressed the frustration of many parents who believed their opinion would not be heeded despite being given a chance to speak.

“We closed McKinley last year and parents came up here and voiced their opinion,” he said. “They said, ‘Nothing happened, so why should I voice my opinion about Taft? They’re not going to listen to me.’”

Board Treasurer Patrick Sutka encouraged residents to contact their elected representatives in Lansing to get funding for schools restored.

“Our state representative or our state senator in Lansing — whoever it may be — may have worked hard on our behalf, but they have failed us since 1993,” he said.

Vernon Elmore expressed his anger over his perception of the inequity of school funding between districts in the state, saying they get between $1,000 and $5,000 more per pupil.

“You children are being discriminated against by the state of Michigan,” he said. “If we had this extra money. we would not be up here talking about closing another one of the schools in this district.”

Elmore called for legal action by the board to end the disparity, but members said district legal have told them a lawsuit would be very expensive and most likely unproductive.

Becky Brandenburg said she was concerned about the costs to maintain an empty building and the possible costs to remove hazardous materials in the event of a demolition. She asked about keeping records private during the moving process and wanted to know what criteria were considered in choosing a school to close.

“How was this decision really made?” Brandenburg asked. Jim Zang offered what on that evening was a unique point of view.

“I’m going to go way out on a limb here and speak on behalf of them and say that I bet not a single individual up here wants to close Taft, including Dr. Cole,” he said.“What we have here is a fixed process,” Zang said. “The government says, ‘This is how much money you have.’

“We as a city are not allowed to raise our millage, not allowed to collect additional funds, we can’t help ourselves. that goes back to proposal A.

“You’re venting that frustration to your local politicians, (but) the very root cause of the problem is not here. It’s in Lansing, 90 miles away.You can sit here and scream all day long, but the fact of the matter is that they have to balance the budget. We elect them.

“If you’re not happy, there’s another election coming in September, too.”

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