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Published: Thursday, 5/25/2006

Jefferson schools facing mounting financial hurdles

BY GEORGE J. TANBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Like many Monroe County school districts - and schools all over the state - the Jefferson Schools system is struggling financially.

But next year the system faces probably the biggest challenge in its history - a $3.5 million budget deficit.

"We're on a slippery slope," Superintendent Timothy Fitzpatrick said. "We're already bare bones."

The school district, once prosperous, has been struggling for years.

In 1994, when Proposal A was enacted, changing the way schools were funded, Jefferson schools lost the tax revenue it used to receive from its proximity to the Fermi 2 nuclear power plant, Mr. Fitzpatrick said. Instead, the money went to the state.

"Every year since then, we've been spending $1 million more than we have," he said.

Added to the system's woes has been the rising cost of health insurance and retirement benefits.

But the biggest problem, other than losing the Fermi money, has been the loss of 300 students in three years. The district gets $8,000 per student from the state annually, so that's a loss of $2.4 million. Most of these students have moved out of the area because their parents have found jobs elsewhere.

"This is a blue-collar community; all these jobs are leaving the area," school board President Jeffrey Grodi said.

Mr. Grodi said a real estate agent recently told the school board that she has 126 homes for sale in Frenchtown Township and that no one wants to buy them.

"When you lose 300 students, it's out of [our] control. We can't control when they move out of the area," he said.

Although the district has been struggling for years, voters have declined to support several levies that would have provided financial relief. In May, 2005, voters rejected by almost 800 votes an 8.31-mill, five-year operating levy that Jefferson officials said they needed to maintain their present level of services. The levy would have raised $2.2 million a year.

In February, voters rejected by a 3-1 margin a 2.5-mill, five-year transportation levy.

Previously, the district eliminated bus transport for students in grades 7-12 and initiated fee charges for students playing sports.

Meanwhile, Mr. Fitzpatrick said he has negotiated contracts with 13 different employee groups with a zero-percent increase.

"We've gotten concessions from all the groups," he said.

There's one silver lining, according to Mr. Fitzpatrick. The district is debt-free.

Still, school officials have to deal with the looming budget deficit and how to cover expenses in a school system that traditionally has high state test scores and a well-regarded faculty.

"We could talk about mass closing of buildings in the district. We could go back and talk about reducing [more] programs. But if we do that, we would lose more of our student base," Mr. Fitzpatrick said.

Rather, Mr. Fitzpatrick and the board have agreed that the only solution for the district to survive next year without cuts to basic programs and services is to borrow money from the district's equity fund - money that would have to be paid back.

"We would have to say to the public, 'We're going to take out our checkbook and spend our money in the hope that you will help us in the future,'‚óŹ" he said.

Given local economic conditions, Mr. Grodi said, it's hard to blame area residents for not supporting the schools.

"Gas is $3 a gallon. Are you going to feed your family or give more to your school?" he said.

These people are having a hard time. But you still have to have a good school district and provide a good education for your students. Also, if you don't have a good school district, it's hard to sell your home."

Contact George Tanber at:

gtanber@theblade.com

or 734-241-3610.



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