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Published: Monday, 2/26/2007

Large crowds likely to hear Monroe plan to shut schools

BY BENJAMIN ALEXANDER-BLOCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

MONROE - The Monroe Board of Education will brief an expected overflow crowd tomorrow evening about its plans to close two or three elementary school buildings to deal with a growing deficit.

Ken Laub, the district's business and finance director, says the district is in no worse financial shape than many other districts in the county or the state, but that Monroe is trying to be proactive.

"We were looking at the 2007-2008 school year as the year we are going to really change the way we do things," Mr. Laub said. "It depends upon the culture of the district, how they make determinations, and how they want to tackle problems. But I feel my responsibility to the district is to make sure we position ourselves for the future."

School districts across Michigan have struggled to cope with state financial aid that has been relatively stagnant for years. Many districts are nearing a point where their fund equity balances - their rainy-day funds - are exhausted, eaten up by increases in health-care and pension costs for their employees, and declining student enrollment.

Mr. Laub said the Monroe school district must cut at least $5 million from its budget by June.

Last week, the board discussed closing up to three elementary schools for a savings of up to $1.12 million. Other cost-cutting options also were proposed.

The board will meet tomorrow at 6 p.m. in the Monroe High School auditorium at 901 Herr Rd. to discuss with the public proposed school closings and redistricting.

The board this month has voted to eliminate three custodian positions, two maintenance positions, and three bus routes for an annual savings of about $335,000.

Last month, it decided to switch from block scheduling to trimesters starting next school year to save the district about $500,000 annually.

The district started the school year with a fund balance of about $3.4 million. Mr. Laub said it is going to use $2.3 million to balance the 2006-07 deficit, bringing the fund balance down to about $1.1 million by June.

Without cuts, he predicted, the district would have to spend more than $3 million from the fund to balance the anticipated 2007-08 deficit. That would create a negative fund balance, which state law does not allow.

Including this year, Monroe will have lost 366 students, or about $2.5 million in state funding, over the last three years - including $1.8 million connected with the expected loss of 166 students this year, based on the state's $7,095 per-pupil allowance.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm last month proposed to resolve the state's budget crunch without cutting school aid by increasing some taxes.

But the GOP-controlled Senate has rejected her proposal, leaving an unresolved budget for the state fiscal year that started Oct. 1.

There is a $377 million deficit in Michigan's school aid fund, which would equal a $224 per-pupil cut throughout the state.

Without factoring in the possible state budget reductions, Ted Magrum, Bedford Public Schools' assistant superintendent of finance and operations, predicts Bedford will have to take about $1.6 million from its fund balance in the 2007-2008 school year, and $2.8 million would be needed to offset increased costs and declining revenue in 2008-09.

"And, although not legally allowed, we would have negative fund equity balance of $1.9 million" in 2009-2010, Mr. Magrum wrote in his budget report this month.

He said this will require Bedford to once again look at significant budget cuts for upcoming years.

In June, the Mason Consolidated Schools board sheared about $1 million off its budget by eliminating 16 positions and closing Mason North Early Childhood Center, which housed about 125 kindergarten and preschool students.

Those students will now go to Mason Central Elementary, which had about 450 students last year.

This is the second school in three years that the Mason Consolidated Board of Education has shut down because of budget concerns.

In June, 2003, Luna Pier Elementary School, which had 82 students from first through fourth grades, was closed. Its students were transferred to Central Elementary.

Mason's fund balance is expected to slip to $523,000 by June, according to Michelle Strick, the director of finance and business services.

"That's not really going to be enough for us to start up the new year, so obviously we will have to make some more cuts," Ms. Strick said.

Contact Benjamin Alexander-Bloch

at: babloch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6168.



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