Budget battle brings deep cuts to schools

Pool closed, bus service halted for next year

Sunday Times Newspapers

SOUTHGATE – No one expected good news, and Southgate Community Schools Business Manager Daniel Phillips couldn’t offer much.

“We’re walking on rough ground right now,” Phillips said, referring to a projected budget deficit of more than $5 million in the next fiscal year. “This is going to be the worst year ever, financially.”

As expected, Tuesday’s board of education meeting featured recommendations for eliminating that deficit, with cuts that include eliminating general education bus service, closing the Anderson High School swimming pool and outsourcing custodial services.

The looming threat of a state takeover of Southgate Community Schools put the district in a no-win position, said school board members who voted for more than $5 million worth of reductions in the 2011-12 budget Tuesday. By July 1 a balanced budget is due to Lansing, and school districts throughout Michigan are working to avoid having an Emergency Financial Management team make those decisions.

“Southgate is one of 43 districts in the state facing a budget deficit,” Phillips said, noting that other districts – including Trenton– are making similar decisions.

As with other districts, parents and staff packed the meeting room to voice their concerns. Phillips outlined the core challenges to the school budget, including reductions in state per-pupil funding, a shrinking tax base and a likely loss of students for the 2011-12 academic year. Some reports indicate that better economic days lay ahead: Phillips said state officials were officially declaring an end to the recession and noted, “There are signs of increased revenues and stronger school funding.”

But for the 2011-2012 academic year, Phillips said the school would take “some big hits this year,” and concluded with recommendations of staff reductions, facility closure and other changes.

“If everything goes to plan, we’ll be out of deficit by June 2012,” Phillips said.

Predictions of better days ahead did little to satisfy those in attendance. Parents expressed their worries about children walking to school, often having to cross busy roads such as Fort Street; staff voiced support for custodial workers and bus drivers joining the ranks of the state’s unemployed. To some, the school board passed on opportunities to save jobs or services.

“We’ve been trying to meet, to get some information,” Custodian Paul Engel said, adding that administrators rejected the workers’ attempts to retain the current staff.

Superintendent David Peden disagreed, saying that all employee units and bargaining groups were given a chance to present a bid.

Board members left open the possibility of saving the Anderson High School pool from an August closing if a parent group found sponsors to offset the budgeted savings.

“Come up with a check for $50,000, and if it still holds water, that window is open,” Peden said.

Patrick Owen, a district parent and swim team booster, said he had been trying to contact members of the board to determine the exact amount needed to save the pool, as he and others hoped to approach the business community for contributions. But board members said the maintenance alone might prohibit attempts to keep the facility open.

“If a group of parents are willing to raise money, it’s a low-risk offer,” Owen said. “You’re not looking to save the pool; there are other places you can cut. It doesn’t make sense.”

Owen was told that he would be given access to have contractors inspect the pool to provide estimates.

The children’s Gator swim program, Peden said, would continue at the YMCA under the guidance of Southgate Parks and Recreation. The high school swim program will continue as well, in partnership with other schools and a road-trip heavy meet schedule.

By the end of Tuesday’s meeting, the board of education approved resolutions which included the restructuring of custodial services, an estimated $520,000 savings, and elimination of general education transportation, which saved $645,000.

For those in attendance, the news was not all bad. Board members announced that 15 of 59 teachers laid off in April will be reinstated for next school year.

“We need to have staff in place to educate the students,” Board President Edward Gawlick said.

(James Mitchell can be reached at jmitchell@bewickpublications.com.)