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By Tom Hoogterp

The Tahquamenon Area Schools Board met Monday, June 15, in the school cafeteria. The extra space, compared to the library, provided for a measure of distancing. Monday’s meeting was the first face-to-face board meeting since February. The March, April and May meetings were held electronically via Zoom, as were many other meetings involving board members and staff. About half of those present wore masks.

A Truth-in-Taxation hearing was held immediately before the scheduled meeting. The annual meeting is required to demonstrate (to the public) the district’s need for the 18 mil general operating levy. The levy is in place now, and has been approved annually by voters in the district for many years.

Normally the meeting is a formality, but this year it revealed the stunning financial situation in which the district finds itself if current state aid proposals become reality. The bulk of finances for Michigan school districts is provided in the form of a per-pupil grant from Lansing. That grant stood at $8,211,000 for the current school year, but was cut (under the current proposal) by $650 per student. This comes to a loss of $373,984 for the 2019-2020 budget year. An additional loss of $229,605 would be incurred in the 2020-2021 school year. These reductions result from lost revenue to the state resulting from the economic decline related to  the Covid-19 virus.

A year ago the district boasted a fund balance of $776,360. The projected balance as of June 30, 2020 falls to $437,038. A year from now, without drastic cuts, the balance would drop into negative territory to the tune of -$308,679. In order to avoid the negative balance, as required by state law, the district needs to cut 5.8%  from all budget areas. Business Manager Donna Bergman told the board, “The only thing feasible to cut is staff.”

Superintendent Stacy Price opined, “It will take 6-7 years to recoup to the (state funding)  level of June, 2019.”

It needs to be noted that a budget is a plan, at both the state and school district level. Amendments can be made. The situation can change. Bergman concluded, “As a district, we cannot adopt a budget that is in deficit. There are so many unknowns, but this is the best we can do right now.” The “best” is to cut spending in all areas (except federal aid) by 5.8% resulting in a $1 budget surplus a year from now.

As the regular meeting proceeded, the discussion moved to more common issues. Price reviewed successes and shortcomings of the recent virtual learning experience. “It’s kind of been an evolution,” she conceded. Communication and connectivity issues presented continual challenges.  She reserved special praise for cafeteria workers who prepared and delivered five breakfasts and 5 lunches per week to the student body.

The board approved placing the 18 mil operating millage on the November 2020 ballot. Traditionally it has been voted on in March. Taxpayers will see no difference in their bills. The move is expected to save the district significant election costs, as November election expenses are shared by state and federal agencies. The proposal included asking the millage for 5 years, rather than repeat the election annually. Trustee Bruce Klusmeyer noted, “The challenge is going to be to educate the public, then convince them it’s ok to do it for five years.”

A number of measures were approved concerning budgeting and reopening of the library. There are a series of state guidelines to satisfy. No dates have been announced, but “soon.”

The board also approved the use of the Edgenuity (virtual) course catalog for summer school. Price especially likes the on-demand tutoring feature. The program is available to students for credit recovery or for students who want to get ahead.

Athletic eligibility requirements have been tightened. Essentially, a student must be passing all of his/her classes at close of school Friday to participate in the following week’s contests. “I’m not anti-sports,” Price assured the board. “Education is number one! It’s not a right to play sports.”

Contracts were approved for Administrative Assistant Jane Freeborn, Athletic Director Kenn Depew, and Superintendent Stacy Price. Price’s contract extends to five years, rather than the traditional three years. “The district needs stability,” board president Brian Rahilly stated, “and Stacy provides that.”

In other actions the board approved budgets for hot lunch, general fund and school activities. Bergman announced that “Debt series A”  and  “Debt series B” have expired, meaning that the bond approved by voters in 2010 has been paid off. “We are completely out of debt.”

Price lamented the state of affairs in her statement at the close of the meeting. “The district, custodians, teachers and all the way through, have worked very hard over the last few years to get the fund balance to where it is. . .Everyone in this building knows that our facility is a challenge. . . To take this kind of hit is really hard to swallow. . . In the blink of an eye or the swish of a pen. . . And it’s gone.”

She thanked the community and staff for their work and support, and concluded, “I’m hopeful. I hope that in July when we meet it’s a much prettier picture.”