Sara Swanson

School Board votes to consolidate K-12 into two buildings next year

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At a standing-room-only special meeting last Monday night, the Manchester Community School Board of Education voted 6 to 1 to repurpose the Middle School Building next year, and to house the 5th & 6th grades at Klager Elementary and 7th & 8th grades at the High School.

After hearing from eight audience members who expressed their concerns, dismay and threats of pulling their children out of the district, and three who expressed confidence in our community to weather the coming changes and reluctant support for whatever decision the board made, the board heard the recommendation that the Middle School be repurposed next year. They discussed the recommendation for more than an hour, and voted yes.

What has brought the school to this point? Low birth rates and a decade of declining state support.

The entire state of Michigan has seen low birthrates since the financial crisis in 2009. Consequently, Manchester Community Schools has had incoming Kindergarten classes at around half the size of outgoing senior classes for the last four years. Because local millages in Michigan are capped by law, the district is dependent on the state for the bulk of its funding, and that funding is tied to the number of students in the district. Fewer students means less money from the state. This problem is compounded by the fact that the per-student funding from the state has been very weak over the last decade, with an especially large cut in 2011-2012. Unfortunately, the cost of running the school (buildings, staff and equipment) at best remains the same. This has resulted in the school district’s expenses exceeding their income, which means the district has been eating into savings.

If a school district’s savings (called a “fund balance”) drops  below 5% of their annual operating expenses, state law requires the district to work with their Intermediate School District (ISD) to create a deficit elimination plan and follow it. If the fund balance drops below zero, a state assigned emergency manager will be brought in to balance the budget. While Manchester currently has a positive fund balance, projections show Manchester dropping below a 5% fund balance by the 2018/2019 school year. With no changes, this leads to a negative fund balance two years later, putting the district at risk of having the state assign an emergency manager. Repurposing the Middle school pushes off falling below 5% until 2020/2021.

While at the last the school board meeting three options were discussed, administrators drew up twenty more options for the school board to look at based on suggestions made to them over the last few weeks. The reasons why some of these options are non-viable were briefly explained to those gathered for the meeting. One option, eliminating busing, causes districts to lose between 10 to 20% of their students on average, and eliminating athletics would most likely cause us to lose even more students. Eliminating an administrator without eliminating a building was discussed last year and was “poorly received” by the community. Land could be sold off but that money would have to go toward paying back the bond, and not into the general fund, so is of no help. The two remaining options that were heavily discussed, other than repurposing the Middle School, were closing Ackerson and laying off teachers without closing buildings.

One factor weighing into this decision is that four Manchester teachers are retiring at the end of this school year. School Board president Chris Fegan stated again that one of Manchester’s best features is its small class sizes. She brought up the worry that increasing class sizes will cost the district school-of-choice students who cite small class sizes as one of the reasons they come. If no building changes are made, two new teachers will have to be hired, in order to maintain current small class-sizes. Closing the Ackerson building and hiring two teachers to maintain current class sizes would only save the district $50,000, which is not enough to push off dropping below 5%, even by a year. But, because of teacher certification and distribution, if the Middle School is repurposed, the district can hire no one to replace the teachers retiring and still maintain current class sizes. Coming at it from the opposite direction, the same amount of money that repurposing the Middle School will save, can be saved while retaining all buildings by laying off 2 & 1/2 teachers on top of the four retiring. But, in addition to costing people their jobs, this would increase class sizes (for example, up to 40 students per class in the 8th grade).

Several neighboring districts have already begun the process of consolidating their buildings. Superintendent Cherie Vannatter talked about Stockbridge, which has successfully transitioned to two buildings without losing students, and Michigan Center, which has offered to hold a tour of their high school for Manchester parents and answer questions about how this change is working in their district. Based on methods used successfully in other districts, administrators have drawn up plans for scheduling at the high school that include the 7th & 8th graders having their own bathrooms, own gym classes, own lunchtimes, and clustering them in one hall as much as possible. She also talked about new mentoring programs.

Audience members and some board members expressed frustration that this was being left until the last minute and that unlike when switching to a balanced calendar was considered last year with a large amount of community input, this seems to have been worked on behind closed doors. Board member Jeremy Koch emphasized that once the decision was made, the importance will be in how the implementation is handled. Vannatter stated that she will be scheduling parent meetings on this topic on different days and times to accommodate everyone’s schedules and encouraged everyone with questions, concerns and ideas to email her directly or use the “Let’s Talk” button on the school’s website.

While repurposing the Middle School pushes off dropping below a zero fund balance, it is still on the horizon. But it is important to note that Manchester is not alone in this. School board member Tom Mann reported that in 3 to 5 years, 60% of all of Michigan’s schools will be below a 5% fund balance. It’s not clear the state has any plan for assuming control of more than half of the school districts in the state. Something needs to be done on a state-wide level to fix school funding because currently the system is objectively broken. Repurposing the Middle School is not a permanent solution, but hopefully it is a patch that will help us weather the storm and keep our head above water until the bigger, statewide issues are dealt with.

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