By Susan Bromley
Brandon Twp.-For the fourth year in a row, the school district is projecting an operating surplus.
“We are financially strong, we have certainly come a long way from a few years ago,” said Jan Meek, the district’s executive director of business services. “We were able to add to the fund balance even while still losing a significant number of students every year.”
The board unanimously approved the 2017-18 proposed budget presented by Meek at their June 19 meeting. The budget has projected revenues of $25,041,050 and projected expenditures of $24,505,002, with an estimated operating surplus of $536,048 which will increase the fund balance to $4,088,155, or 16.33 percent.
School officials were able to accomplish this despite yet another year of decline in enrollment. The district has lost students continually since 2006, on average, between 100-200 students per year, which equates to big losses in what is essentially their sole source of revenue— per pupil funding. Brandon is also a “minimum foundation” district, meaning the district is among those receiving the lowest amount of per-pupil funding from the state, currently at $7,631. In comparison, districts such as Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham receive more than $11,500 per student.
Balancing the budget and achieving an operating surplus these last four years has not come without pain. The board approved a 7.5 percent reduction to teachers’ salaries four years ago. The district closed Belle Ann Elementary in 2013 and this month, shuttered Brandon Fletcher Intermediate School in a reconfiguration of buildings.
The former H.T. Burt Elementary, now considered part of Harvey Swanson, has also been mostly vacant for the past few years. Superintendent Matt Outlaw has advocated “right-sizing”of the district since he was hired in 2014, which has equated to a reduction in staff correlating to declining enrollment.
This year’s reconfiguration of buildings and declining enrollment resulted in the reduction of 10 instructional staff and two administrative staff, for a decrease in expenditures of $1,123,792. But there are also some positive signs for the district, including an anticipated $120 increase per-pupil from the state and investments for student learning including Project Lead the Way ($75,000), new textbooks across all grades ($75,000), and technology upgrades (valued at $150,000, but with grants, a $45,000 cost to the district). Two new special education buses are also being purchased at a cost of $32,000 annually for seven years.
In the last two years, the board has restored some of the teachers’ wages, putting 2 percent back last year, and in the prior contract, restoring a full step (teachers typically have contracts in which pay increases by “step” according to years with the district; step increases were frozen for several years).
At Monday’s meeting, the board approved a successor agreement for the teachers, which essentially extends their current contract through Oct. 31 without any salary changes, but which Meek said benefits teachers in the area of health insurance.
“We basically bought four months because we have uncertainty,” said Meek. “We want to see the student count and get more clarity on the wastewater treatment plant.”
The district has been facing a mandate by the Department of Environmental Quality to replace the wastewater treatment plant that serves the middle school and high school by November 2019. Toward that end, officials have placed $1.2 million in an assigned fund balance with an eye on a new wastewater treatment plant.
“We are getting extra testing done and we will know this summer if the TIN (nitrate) levels are down,” said Meek. “We are hoping by some miracle we can prove to the state that the water situation is better.”
Number one on her wish list from the state, however, is more per-pupil funding, particularly in consideration of the geographics in the district, which adds to higher bus transportation costs.
“We’d like to see the formula adjusted, but we’re not going to let the budget go downhill in spite of the state,” said Meek. “We’ve added more programs and opportunities for the kids. We’re not in the panic mode we were four or five years ago.”