2017-06-18 / Front Page

LCS officials to close $350,000 budget gap

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LAPEER — As school districts across Lapeer County are finalizing their state-mandated balanced budgets for the next school year, the unavoidable fact of declining area birth rates has presented new challenges to school boards and budget committees, and Lapeer Community Schools (LCS) are no different.

The LCS Central Office Leadership Team (COLT) has been at work recently alongside the LCS Board of Education and employee group representation to hammer out a budget for the 2017- 18 school year. The LCS Board of Education, like every school board in Michigan, is required to complete and approve a balanced budget before July 1.

The declining birth rate, resulting in smaller and smaller incoming kindergarten class cohorts, is creating a significant budgetary issue. Each student, over the course of the year, generates roughly $7,000 in state funding through state foundation allowances, so when a district loses student population, they’re also losing money.

“We are projecting to be down in the neighborhood of 170 students, very similar to last year’s decline,” said Jared Field, director of communications for LCS. “This is in large part due to the difference in size between our graduating class and our incoming kindergarten class. That kindergarten number is driven by our local birth rate which continues to decline.”

As has been the case for several years, LCS officials have been tasked with balancing a budget that continues to be adversely affected by lower birth rates and decreasing enrollment. “We plug in different variables and projections like the student count for the fall, retirements and resignations of staff and other revenue changes,” said LCS superintendent Matt Wandrie. “After we input those projections and calculate different staffing needs we can see where we are.” It is estimated that as a result, LCS must reconcile a loss in revenue between $1 million and $1.5 million. With a dip in revenue, COLT and the LCS board must work to cut an estimated $350,000 to balance the budget before July 1.

“Our current fiscal reality demands a high degree of innovation with respect to budgeting,” said Wandrie. “We rank very high statewide in terms of efficiency, so there’s very little fat to cut in most cases. It’s a challenge.”

“Our record on efficiency speaks for itself,” said Field. “We have consistently focused on finding new and creative ways to keep necessary cuts as far away from students as possible.” With fewer areas that offer opportunity to remove unnecessary spending from an already efficient budget, COLT and the LCS Board are finding it quite the challenge to determine where cuts must come from. According to Wandrie, currently cost reduction strategies are being considered in elementary level media centers as well as changes in custodial services, cost of athletic transportation and the dean of students positions in various facilities. “This gets more difficult every year,” Field said. “Declining enrollment is a reality that we have been dealing with for many years, and it is not getting easier to manage.”

Wandrie said the budget process of the future will be heavily influenced by the creation of the district’s next longterm strategic plan, which will begin this fall.

“The last six years have led us down a pathway of innovation, but there’s more to be done,” said Wandrie. “We must evaluate, from a holistic perspective, how we function as an organization. We must be open to new and creative ways to fulfill our core mission. It’s going to require a willingness to consider new and creative ways to deliver on our promise to all students.” According to Wandrie, several areas have already received cuts due to the natural reduction as a result of declining enrollment, but there’s more work to be done to find the added $350,000 in cuts that are still necessary. “We’re going to try to make the reductions as painlessly as possible,” he said.

The proposed budget will go before the LCS Board of Education for final approval and adoption during the upcoming June 22 meeting and with it will come changes to facility management, “especially at the elementary level,” according to Field. These changes will ultimately result in targeted staffing reductions but will also provide opportunities to “expand our focus on literacy with a consistent structure at the K5 level,” said Field.

As cohorts reduce in size and efficiency is sought by LCS, as well as every district in the county, the shadow of facility closure looms. LCS combined its two high schools into one facility — Lapeer High School — in 2014, and as kindergarten class sizes continue to shrink, more facility closures may be on the horizon.

“We will take a fresh look at our operational structure as it relates to facilities when we start working on our new strategic plan this fall,” said Field. “In large part, we will be looking for ways to operate our existing facilities in a more efficient manner as we’ve done for the past six years.”

Because of the declining birth rates, the key tactic many school boards across Michigan seek to employ is attracting students from other districts through the school-of-choice program as well as entice current students to remain with the district. When the budget is constructed, COLT and the LCS board was mindful to include provisions for programs and initiatives to further make Lapeer Schools an attractive choice for prospective and current students.

“As far as a growth strategy, we’ve invested a lot of resources into our academic program not only for our current students but also as a way to attract new students who are looking for opportunities that many other districts do not offer,” said Field. “In the near term, we are focused on growing our K-12 virtual offerings. We are excited to be able to offer a new online curriculum which will give students from all adjacent counties access to tuition-free virtual opportunities.”

The proposed 2017-18 budget will be before the LCS Board of Education at is June 22 meeting, held in the administration building at 7 p.m.

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