2008-08-30 / Top News

Island School Loses Budgeted Funds From Saving Paradise'

Reallocation Will Save Burt Twp. School
By Ryan Schlehuber

School administrators Seth Hoopingarner and Penny Barney have been battling to keep the doors open at Burt Township School in Grand Marais for two years, and now, owing to a reallocation in the state aid Section 22d funding, known as the Saving Paradise fund, the 63 students enrolled there this year can be assured of a place to learn.

But for the Mackinac Island school, and other small, remote schools that share in the Saving Paradise fund, the larger share for Burt Township will mean a reduction in funding. Mackinac Island thought it would receive $84,546, and DeTour Area Schools was expecting $198,822. Beaver Island and Paradise will also get less.

These five districts share $750,000 in the fund, which was established for isolated school districts that would not be able to consolidate with neighboring districts if they were to go bankrupt.

The state legislature gave more to Burt Township this year because it has no fund balance, even after making all the budget cuts it could.

"If it wasn't for this reallocation, we'd be looking at closing within two years, said Mr. Hoopingarner, the school's principal, who spoke with the Town Crier Tuesday, August 26.

The K-12 school is operating on a $840,000 budget, which, said Mr. Hoopingarner, "isn't much," and it faces a dwindling student population in an aging community. The school is housed in an 80-year-old building that is showing its age.

"Our entire heating system died on us in last winter, and that was tough to swallow," Mr. Hoopingarner said. "Our kindergarten through-second grade teacher was laid off all summer, but with this reallocation, we were able to bring her back. We have seven teachers but we can't afford to make any more cuts to staff because we'd never meet the federal No Child Left Behind requirements.

"We are extremely grateful for this," he added. "This is the shot in the arm we needed. This isn't permanent, but this will help us to get to where we need to go."

For the school board on Mackinac Island, the timing of the reallocation is of more concern than the cut in funding. Anticipating its full share of the fund this year, the school board, in July, lowered its millage rate from 7.3 mills (which would raise $1,385,347) to 7.1 mills ($1,351,538), a $33,800 difference.

Pete Everson, president of the Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District (ISD), explained to the board at its meeting Monday, August 25, that the school's allocation from the Saving Paradise fund could be reduced by as much as $70,000. The specific allocations won't be known until the districts receive their audit reports in September.

Mackinac Island Public School's fund equity, commonly known as a "rainy day fund," contains nearly $1 million, about 67% of its $1,475,592 operating budget, when most districts in the state are struggling to maintain a recommended minimum of 10%.

Mackinac Island was able to establish the surplus fund with great effort, however, said Island School Board President Ben Mosley.

"I've been on the board for 14-plus years and I remember we didn't always have a significant amount in our fund balance," said Mr. Mosley. "We had to get loans all the time until taxes came in to meet the budget, and $10,000 to $15,000 would go out the window each year for that. I hate the fact that we get discriminated against because we were able to build up our fund balance.

"We've made cuts to our budgets before," he continued. "We didn't bring back a business teacher or a wood shop teacher" when posts became vacant. "We tried to make it where students didn't suffer, though."

Funds like Saving Paradise, said Mr. Mosley, can eventually help the school replace vacant positions, such as a teacher for music, foreign language, business, and add electives to the curriculum. The school will also lose its art program, as art teacher Pam Finkel is resigning because she is moving off island.

High school students will be able to take wood shop class this year, however, as high school social studies teacher Seth Baker, who has an interest in carpentry, will teach the course.

Mr. Mosley, as well as board trustee Sara Chambers, questioned the timing of reallocating the fund now, after schools have set their budgets.

"I always knew this money could go away, but I felt more secure when you [Mr. Everson] sat with us when we passed our budget" in July. The issue was not brought up then, he said. "It doesn't make sense to allocate money after budgets are set," he added.

Superintendent Roger Schrock said the ISD didn't inform him of the possible reallocation until August.

Mr. Everson, who attended Monday's meeting while on his vacation, said the ISD had been trying to get preliminary budgets from all of the Saving Paradise-funded schools, but all of them were slow in responding. He promised the board he will give it as much advance notice of funding changes as possible in the future.

"We've been very cautious until we know for sure if the districts need that money to the point they cannot recover," said Mr. Everson.

A meeting of the superintendents of the three intermediate school districts involved, and superintendents from the Saving Paradise schools, will be planned for February 2009 to avoid future surprises like this, said Dr. Schrock.

"That group met once, just after the funding was established, and I think we need to get that going again so surprises like this don't happen again," he said.

Mackinac Island's next regular school board meeting will be at 7 p.m. Thursday, September 25, in the school library. The school's audit report may be available by then, according to Dr. Schrock.

Return to top

Click here for digital edition
2008-08-30 digital edition