MARQUETTE - Budget season is wrapping up for area school districts, each of which is holding a budget hearing this month to present their 2012-2013 budget recommendations to their respective school boards.
The districts have come a long way since the budgeting process began several months ago and for at least two area districts, this year has been an unpleasant one.
Marquette Area Public Schools was forced to slash nearly $2.4 million from its budget while Gwinn Area Community Schools needed to cut roughly $1.3 million. The large reductions made it nearly impossible for the districts to make cuts that didn't include staff members.
GACS has looked at cutting nine full time equivalent teachers along with several other staff members to help erase part of that $1.3 million shortfall. MAPS has looked at cutting 8.8 full time equivalent teaching positions.
Board members and administration made clear during budget discussions that the massive deficits they faced were not a result of overspending, but under-funding.
"This is not the board's fault. This is not the previous administration's fault. This is not any one person's fault," GACS Superintendent Kim Tufnell said during a Gwinn school board work session in April. "This is how the school is funded, this is how public schools are funded, and no one is to blame for this except what Lansing is doing right now."
MAPS board Secretary/Treasurer Laura Songer has reiterated at several meetings since the board began its budget discussions that area residents need to contact their congressional representatives and implore them to change the way public education is funded.
"The state Legislature feels they can take the heart and soul out of the schools," Songer said during a May 14 board meeting. "What they need to do is to hear from you and also the students. ... You need to write emails, whatever, to your Legislature and let them know how you feel about what they're doing to the public schools."
Often beginning halfway through the school year, the process for formulating the following year's budget is time consuming, as each discussion brings with it updated information. Because the school budget year is different than that used by the state, area districts must keep a close eye on legislative proposals that would significantly impact state aid, teacher pensions or any number of other state-mandated funding procedures so they can quickly apply those changes to their current budget proposals.
The Michigan Legislature has kept area districts busy this year, as they've pushed for all-day kindergarten and adopted a new funding model that keeps the state moving toward an increase in performance-based public education funding.
Almost every MAPS meeting that held a budget discussion involved a different projected funding shortfall as a result, forcing the administration and the board to constantly re-examine previous budget proposals.
And even though each district must pass a budget by July 1 or risk being out of compliance with state law, state legislators still have several bills before them that could significantly alter the financial picture for school districts in the coming year. That includes Senate Bill 1040, which if approved would overhaul the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System, preventing most retirees under the age of 60 from collecting any healthcare benefits and asking employees to contribute more to their pensions.
The bill allows for a one-year phase-in period in which retirees whose age and years of service total 85 could still receive benefits.
It would also lower the MPSERS rate districts are required to pay, which would have a huge impact on bottom lines in school districts across the state.
Even with this type of legislation sitting in the Legislature, the boards must continue with their budget process, which often begins with numbers and ends with people - as district superintendents must figure out how many teacher salaries are needed to whittle the budget down by a few hundred thousand dollars.
When it first became know that the Gwinn district was likely going to have to cut staff members, Tufnell said she would be forced to make some incredibly difficult decisions.
"It's gut wrenching. It's heartbreaking. I would love nothing more than to not have to do any of it," Tufnell said in May of making teacher cuts.
The process is also an intricate one, as MAPS Assistant Superintendent for Finance Deb Barry has said during many board meetings, including a January meeting in which she compared the district's budget to a line of dominoes: You can't remove one without it knocking down a bunch of others.
And it's a process that is highly public, as each board must deliberate and vote on any budget cuts in open meetings, where the public can display support or disapproval of such decisions.
The process ends on a public note as well, as each board must hold a public budget hearing before formally adopting any budget recommendation.
The MAPS budget hearing is slated for 5:30 p.m. Monday in room 210 of the Graveraet School. GACS's hearing is set for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Gwinn High School library.
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is email@example.com.