• Title: "…strengthen what we have (and give our great teachers raises)."
  • Author: Sarah Comstock
  • Date: 01/26/2016
  • Additional Categories: Recent Essays, Sarah Comstock

"…strengthen what we have (and give our great teachers raises)."

I moved to the Glencairn neighborhood of East Lansing 3.5 years ago when there were four K-4 elementary schools, two 5-6 buildings, the middle school and the high school. This arrangement seemed a little strange to me, but in practice it worked fine. When I moved in, I was told this arrangement had been set up because there was not enough money for the district to operate in a more traditional manner. Then, two years ago, the configuration changed. Red Cedar was closed. The other buildings were converted to K-5 elementary buildings. It was my understanding that all six buildings did not open as K-5 buildings because of money and student shortages. So, what has changed with the district’s financial and student numbers situations?
As far as I can tell from a cursory glance at the evidence available to me, not much has changed. A look at the area’s census numbers for kids between the ages of 5 and 18 (quickfacts.census.gov) shows that East Lansing has enough kids to have 191 kids per grade. Assuming 2 classrooms per grade per school, that would work out to be 20 kids per classroom with 5 schools or 15 kids per classroom with 6 schools. So, the district still has modest resident student numbers.

What about financially? Last year, the district closed a $1,000,000 gap in the budget by admitting 213 new schools of choice (SOC) students, making 22.8% of our students SOC. In a Lansing State Journal (LSJ) article from September of 2015, Richard Pugh, director of finance for our district, said our fund balance would be ~6.7% (2.48million), much lower than the 10-15% that auditors recommend. He also said that East Lansing has not had a 10% fund balance since the 2010-2011 fiscal year. In fact, the net position of the school district as of June 30, 2015 was negative $16,835,988 (an increase over the June 30, 2014 balance of negative $22, 334,509). So, it would seem, as recently as this past September, not much has changed with the district’s financial situation.

What do the number presented by Richard Pugh at tonight’s BOE meeting add? If I understood correctly, as of June 2016 the district will have a 10% fund balance ($4,000,000), but Richard Pugh said that auditors recommend a 15-20% balance. Additionally, Richard Pugh mentioned that $700,000 of the extra $1,200,000 in this year’s operating fund will not be recurring and some will be spent (the money for teachers’ long-overdue pay raises, I think) due to accounting details. So, the 10% fund balance is not only far too small but also most likely temporary.

What is the cost of opening a sixth K-5 building? As presented at tonight’s BOE meeting, the Red Cedar start-up costs were reported to be $564,313 with $293,792 coming from the capital fund (from the tech bond of 2013) and $270,521 coming from the general fund. Additionally, the numbers reported at tonight’s meeting leave out key costs such as food service and kitchen infrastructure costs. However, let’s focus on the recurring costs of the K-5 elementary as the infrastructure costs are negligible compared to the cost of faculty, staff, administration, busing, and other recurring costs. Let’s assume two classrooms per grade and no sharing of staff between buildings. Twelve teachers (~$75,000 each), 1 principal (which, based on the number shown for a 0.25% FTE tonight, would be ~$150,000), 3 specials teachers (~$75,000 each), 1 custodian (~$45,000), and other needed staff would add up to about $1,500,000 dollars in salaries and benefits each year. That is 200 SOC students (assuming $7500/SOC student), which would be eight classrooms of 25 students each – so more than half of the school. This would be on top of the current 363 SOC students making for a total of 563 SOC students in the district. This calculation does not include salaries for paraprofessionals, administrative assistants or social workers, etc. And, this calculation does not include yearly costs other than salaries and benefits. Furthermore, this does not factor in the crunch in space and teachers that will occur as the additional 200 SOC students move to MSS and ELHS. Clearly the cost of opening another K-5 elementary is high.

If you look at a map, the majority of East Lansing residents live north of Grand River Avenue. Most land available for development lies to the North of the city. Furthermore, there will soon be even fewer children south of Grand River as Spartan Village is closing. The new facility, which is being called 1855 Place by Michigan State, will provide 60 one bedroom units ($800 to $825; Spartan village charged $656-723) and 129 two-bedroom units ($925 to 950; Spartan Village charged $782-864) for families. From a March 2015 LSJ article, there are 914 students and 237 faculty and staff members living in the existing Spartan Village. Based on these numbers, it is unlikely that 1855 place will be a source of as many children as the current Spartan Village has been.

Red Cedar (opened in 1948) is not the first elementary to close on the south side of town. In 2003, the former Spartan Village School reverted back to MSU to be used as a community center for Spartan Village residents. Those children were moved to Red Cedar Elementary. As resident families move to other parts of town, there continues to be less of a need for an elementary school on the south side of town.

I think the board has neglected to consider that current residents may not want to rely on draining students from other districts, to open an elementary school, which is not needed (based on the number of current resident students even allowing for some SOC students). The budget items that replaced 5.2 teachers with 10 paraprofessionals reflect a disturbing trend. These are not ways to fund another K-5 building!

It bears mentioning here that many board members reflected on the reluctance of East Lansing residents to embrace innovative programming. The board presented the perspective that innovative programming is a way to attract more students. What the board may be failing to see, is that current East Lansing residents may have more traditional tendencies that may have drawn them to East Lansing. It would seem that current residents do not see a need to attract new students to the district. What was asked for again and again tonight is for crumbling infrastructure to be fixed and for additional staff so that increased differentiation can be achieved in all East Lansing schools. I heard teacher’s that spoke tonight call for innovation, but I did not hear parents call for innovation. That’s not to say some parents don’t want innovation, but the parents may be interpreting innovation differently than faculty, administration and current board members.

In conclusion, I think the BOE should use the district’s resources to strengthen what we have (and give our great teachers raises). There is no need for the East Lansing school district to siphon students from the neighboring districts to re-open a K-5 elementary south of Grand River Avenue. It would seem that the re-opening of Red Cedar on Sept 6, 2016 could be a disaster for this school district.

Sarah Comstock
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