By LINDA LOBECK
IRON MOUNTAIN - Nearly 50 people - mostly parents - attended Monday's meeting of the Iron Mountain School District Board of Education to talk about some concerns they have with recent decisions made to balance the budget for 2013-14.
And that was exactly one of the main agenda items at the meeting - to approve a resolution adopting the budget. All school boards must take this action and submit their budget to the state by June 30.
Of most interest is the general fund budget, which deals with sources of money mostly from local, state and federal sources on the revenue side, and then the instructional programs and the people that are involved with the students on a daily basis - the staff - for the expenditure side.
Total revenue for the general fund was $7,794,428 with an unassigned fund balance from 2012 of $793,564, making the total to appropriate of $8,587,992. On the expenditure side, the total was $7,923,025.
Director of Finance Jennifer Huotari noted that the projected year-end fund balance for June 30, 2014, is $6,000. That fund had been at a little more than $1 million in 2011-12, but was down to $671,000 by the end of 2012-13 year.
Huotari explained that when coming up with the 2013-14 budget, there were certain assumptions that needed to be made. They assumed that there would be 941 full-time-equivalents (FTEs) when it came to the student count in September and the district is expecting a foundation allowance from the state of $7,026 per FTE.
In the areas of best practices and other standards required by the state, the school district could get additional amounts per FTE. Huotari said that this could be $50 per FTE for an equity payment; $40 per FTE for meeting performance based standards; $52 per FTE for best practices; and hopefully an additional $63 a student to offset the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System (MPSERS) costs. She said that with MPSERS, $63 would be the best scenario or the district could get no additional funds.
She added that no increases in steps for staff salaries was in the 2013-14 budget, using the same salaries as were place for 2012-13.
"Everything else in the budget was held at it has been or cuts were made including 15 percent in supplies and cuts in maintenance and technology expenses. A couple of reductions were also seen in the Medicaid funds received for special education students - where we get reimbursed less at a reduction of an average of 5 percent from the 2013 federal government budget cuts sequester," Huotari noted.
Supt. Tom Jayne noted that without making cuts of just more than $1.07 million from the current budget, the school district would have been in deficit spending next year.
Huotari noted that state law requires school district to have a balanced budget. "You can't have negative spending in your budget or you'll have to file a deficit elimination plan with the state."
During public comment time, the board heard from parents concerned about increased elementary class sizes, moving the adult education program to the Central School building, security with seventh and eighth graders moving between buildings, changes resulting in art not offered in the elementary grades, and a need for better communication from the board/administration to the parents.
Katie Maxon, of 318 E. Grand Blvd. in Iron Mountain, talked to the board about a meeting that the parents held and a list of concerns that came from it including the fact that class sizes of 30 students at any level wasn't healthy.
She also noted that the board had said there would be no extra-curricular cuts made and offering more band at the elementary level was not the answer for eliminating art. In addition, several clubs at the high school lost advisers, which are usually covered through the Schedule B assignments.
"We feel that there should be an even distribution of reductions made in the school district. Concerns were also made about reinstating the preschool program at North Elementary so we can keep our kids in our district. We are also concerned about the issue for seventh and eighth graders - with going back and forth between Central and other buildings," Maxon said.
She added that the board and administration needs to take more time to listen to the parents, and talk to them about the decisions being made and why. "I'm angry that good teachers lost their jobs. I'm hopeful you will hear us tonight and find a way to address our concerns. We all deserve a say in this district," Maxon said.
Sara Heathman, of 830 East F St. in Iron Mountain, also expressed her concerns about children getting a quality education.
She asked that the administration be accountable and get back to people when they have questions or concerns. She had questions about the school budget, and asked whether there was a lien on the school property that was kept quiet.
Huotari explained to the group that after she had taken over the position of director of finance through the Business Services Consortium, she got information about a lien that the IRS said was put on the school district property until taxes were paid.
She noted that when it comes to the IRS, the taxpayer must provide and show documentation that the payments were indeed made. Huotari said that when the Business Services Consortium was formed, the school districts changed bank accounts within this new structure and all taxes were paid online. The IRS was pulling the payments from an account that was no longer open and it took some research on Huotari's part to trace and detail that the payments were made. All payments were made on time with the exception of one payment in 2009 had been made a day late. This resulted in a fine from the IRS of $1,600.
This problem with the payments being documented occurred during 2009-2011. But once coming to the attention of the school district, Supt. Tom Jayne noted, it was dealt with within 24 hours. He found out about this problem during his first year as superintendent, and with Huotari's diligence in resolving the matter, no legal fees were incurred by the school district.
Huotari agreed that the issue with the IRS not finding the path that the payments went through has been resolved.
Christine McMahon, of 1128 East E St. in Iron Mountain, was concerned about parents taking their children out of the Iron Mountain School District because of these issues that had already been raised.
"They are good families who have been involved in the school and love this district. They are concerned with the larger class sizes. Studies have shown that class sizes of 15 are a small size and 25 is considered on the big side. I'm concerned with class sizes larger that 25, and that the teachers will be giving more easy-to-grade tests and not essays. My concern is that this district is already below in the MEAP testing in writing and going to larger class sizes will make it harder to work on writing. I'm also concerned with taking away art and putting music place of it. I don't know why the homeroom teacher can't teach art like they did when I was younger," McMahon said.
Julia Berglund, of 705 5th St. in Iron Mountain, is also worried about larger classes - 33-34 in the third grade. "I'm proud to be a Mountaineer and that my kids are in the district. I'm finding it hard when I'm confronted with possibly moving my kids to Kingsford because of these changes. My husband and I have been huge volunteers in this district."
Berglund suggested that they need to do more in looking for grants and that teachers have voiced a willingness to look for grants. "I am going to have to send my kids to Kingsford next year to give them what they deserve in education."
Sandy Lefebvre, of Iron Mountain, noted that she had come to the board meeting in January and didn't feel she had received any response to her concerns as a parent-stakeholder in the school district.
"We have an excellent staff that are providing a good education, but class sizes are a big concern. And there's the issue of curriculum with a parent committee that should be asked about what we can do to keep kids here in the district. We need to look into why we don't offer as many AP classes as Kingsford does and why too many kids are taking online classes."
Lefebvre said that her son was told there were no electives available for him and he'd have to take an online class. "An online class only offers a pass/fail grade and doesn't average into the student's GPA. Plus there's the issue of supervision for students to work under while taking an online class. These are just a few of the issues. I'm asking you as a board to please remember all of us are stakeholders and need to be included in your decisions and told why and what led up to those decisions," Lefebvre said.
Mary Couper, of Detroit Avenue in Iron Mountain, told the board this group is concerned for their kids. "Times are changing. Parents that are treated disrespectfully are bolting from here and Kingsford is getting more students."
She added that she personally went to the courthouse and got copies of documents concerning the lien on the district property and asked how they could put a bond proposal to a vote with a lien.
Scott McClure, of 1001 East F St. in Iron Mountain and former superintendent, told the group the district is in a tough financial situation like many other schools in the state and the board and administration have had to make some tough decisions.
"You can only spend what you have. We have to work together to provide the best education for the students. Pounding at each other is not doing any good. When I came here 22 years ago, we had no fund balance and it gradually got better. Now we are trying to work out of another tough situation - it's the only way that things will get any better," McClure said.
Huotari addressed a question about the district getting $600,000 less in federal funding than was received two or three years ago. She said that money was from the American Recovery Reinvestment funds, and when the district received that from the federal government, the state reduced the amount of funding they provided to school district.
Jayne agreed, noting that the funds were a part of one-time funding that went to school district that was a part of the stimulus package.
Chuck Lantz, of 1400 West A St. in Iron Mountain, also asked questions about the property lien and expressed concerns over larger class sizes next year. "It's not appropriate for learning. Anyone struggling will be left behind. I think class sizes are a big issue. You have excellent teachers, but they won't be as effective without appropriate class sizes. We are all big stakeholders in your school."
Michael March, of Stockbridge Avenue in Iron Mountain, told the group that his four children all attended Iron Mountain Schools.
"The education they got here was second to none. And this education stood the test in college, because they all did well there with what they learned here. When there's not enough money in the budget, it's an economic reality that tough choices have to be made. But you still get an education at Iron Mountain that you can't get anywhere else. I'm proud my kids went here."
Susan Strang, of 365 East C St. in Iron Mountain, said she heard a lot of anger from people as well as genuine concern at Monday's meeting.
"I've also seen and heard concerns from the administrators. There is nothing harder than having to tell someone they are being laid off. I've also heard frustration from the parents who are not getting all the answers - they don't have all the pieces to see where the budget needed to be balanced. There is only so much money that the school district has and sometimes you have to move players around to make the best team," Strang said.
She encouraged the parents to contact their legislators and representatives since the funding is what is making it difficult for public schools. "They (legislators) are the ones taking money away from schools and they haven't been investing in education. It's frustrating as a resident and teacher."
Jeff Poirier, of 915 West B St. in Iron Mountain, served on the Iron Mountain School Board for 16 years. He told the board that they have to do what is right and make hard decisions - a ton of unpopular decisions.
"But at the end of the day you have to do what's best for the students."
Board President Marv Harry thanked everyone for coming to the meeting and he realized how passionate and sincere they are in their concerns about the school district.
"We respect your concerns and as we move forward will consider what has been said tonight. As we move forward, we want things to be better and correct any mistakes. The administration is doing everything they can to move the school district forward. I appreciate the education my kids got here. Let's work together as we move ahead," Harry said.
Other concerns over budget cuts were expressed by Shannon Powell, Mary Martin, Tina Dabb, Amy Geronomi, Barb Gerhard, and Michelle Haferkorn.
Linda Lobeck's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.