By J. PATRICK PEPPER
DEARBORN — The public schools funding crisis caused by a drastic reduction in state-aid payments is no longer a worrisome abstraction – it’s a stark reality.
At the Dearborn Public Schools Board of Education meeting Nov. 9, trustees unanimously approved spending cuts that eliminate $18.6 million from the 2009-10 budget.
Because the district has been operating on an artificially inflated budget since June, the cuts needed to make up for money spent that never was really there to begin with. It also comes on top of $10.2 million in reductions compared to the previous year that already were enacted.
Combined, the measures will mean significant changes to the way education is delivered to the district’s 18,400 students. Larger class sizes, reduced elective class offerings and school libraries that can’t lend out books might be just some of the changes students will face in coming months.
And facing district employees are about 300 job eliminations. Employee groups affected include teachers, administrators, counselors, secretaries, maintenance workers and support staff.
Layoffs, which are determined based on seniority, will become effective Dec. 1 for noninstructional staff and Feb. 1 for instructional staff. December layoffs will hit 17 custodians, 10 transportation workers, 29 secretaries, two nurses, all district librarians and a counselor at each high school, among many others.
Instructional staff cuts, which were delayed until the end of the first semester to avoid chaotic classroom shuffling, will eliminate 90 of the district’s roughly 1,100 teachers. Compounding the loss of teachers is the elimination of all 46 general fund paraprofessionals, and the reduction from six hours to four hours of 23 federally funded paraprofessionals.
While the teacher cuts invariably will mean more students in fewer classes, the specifics still are being worked out. DPS Spokesman David Mustonen said each school will be responsible for coming up with restaffing plans in coming weeks. Schools with the most teachers – such as the district’s three high schools – will see the biggest teacher cuts.
“There is no doubt; it’s going to be tough,” Mustonen said.
Also on the chopping block in February are 14 administrative positions. Those cuts include an assistant principal at each high school and four elementary schools. Students from Long and Nowlin elementary schools will share a principal for the remainder of the year. Athletic director positions will be eliminated districtwide as a way to use those individuals in more of a teaching capacity.
With 85 percent of district expenditures dedicated to employee compensation, job cuts are the largest component of the reduction package. But there are also several cuts in noncompensation spending.
The district hopes to save about $1.2 million through reduced energy consumption. Thermostats will be set a little lower in the winter, and classroom appliance usage will be decreased. A renegotiated natural gas contract will save about $500,000.
The budgets for curriculum and high school sports will be cut by $300,000 and $100,000, respectively. Busing services will be lessened through the elimination of three routes as well as limiting activity buses to funded programs, which don’t include sports.
District officials also will soon be evaluating the advance placement program to see if enough students are using it to justify continuing it in its current form. Student discipline was whacked too, with the elimination of the expulsion and in-school suspension programs, which will combine to save about $235,000.
And with an eye toward what likely will be a similar situation next year, administrators announced plans for 2010 to close Cotter Elementary, where the Great Start Readiness preschool program for at-risk children is held. The district’s Montessori program also will be closed in fall 2010.
Cuts cause tension, anger
“None of us – the board, me, administration, or staff – want to make cuts, but we must live within the funds given to us,” Supt. Brian Whiston said, as he announced the plan to a standing-room only crowd.
But Whiston’s comments seemed to fall on deaf ears. In the public comment portion of the board meeting, which was dominated by school employees, the reactions ranged from skepticism to outrage. The crowd broke into standing ovations and catcalls after nearly every person spoke, causing board members to complain more than once that they were unable to hear each other.
Several employees questioned why the board was going ahead with cuts while state legislators still are exploring possible new revenue sources to cover the funding gap. The general contention was that the district doesn’t need to act now, and by waiting until the Legislature is done deliberating, could save the livelihood of dozens of employees, at least temporarily.
Whiston was dismissive of that idea, however, saying the district has been waiting for the state since May, and that delaying action now will just mean more painful cuts later. Assuming the state doesn’t restore any funding, he said the district would have to lay off about one additional employee for every day that a spending reduction plan is not in place.
A prominent theme among many speakers was that top district officials are asking too much from already-struggling employees, with several comments carrying undertones of class warfare.
Representing a sizable contingent of those in attendance was Dearborn Federation of Teachers President Chris Sipperly. She summarized the comments of many who spoke when she questioned the district’s spending decisions, especially in regard to the number of administrators.
“We are the ones that see the students on a daily basis. We are the ones that have the most direct impact on their education,” Sipperly said. “Why do we need so many administrators when we are losing so many teachers?”
Sipperly, who has been the lead negotiator in contentious ongoing contract talks with district officials, said teachers already have made enough concessions in previous years and should not once again bear the brunt of chronically shrinking education funds.
The district needs to “get rid of the bells and whistles,” “get back to basics,” and “let teachers teach,” she said.
Roger Bartles, member of the noninstructional employee union, the Dearborn Federation of School Employees, said administrators are trying to balance the budget on the backs of “the downtrodden people of this town.”
“The top want more and take it away from the bottom,” he said. “We’re the working people. The working people – not the chiefs – are the ones that keep this district functioning.”
Comments from those who didn’t identify themselves as DPS employees generally focused on how the cuts would affect children rather than paychecks.
“I do not want to be in a class with 40 kids. It will be to hard to learn,” wrote Henry Ford Elementary School third-grader Ali Baydoun.
Another woman, identified only as Sharon, wrote simply, “Please consider cuts for the sake of the children.”