No new school, but still plenty of new debt...



ERIE TIMES NEWS | April 11, 2013

The leader of Millcreek schools proposed closing at least one elementary school, cutting staff and increasing taxes to shrink a projected $8.8 million deficit for 2013-14.

Assistant Superintendent William Hall told Millcreek School Board members and more than 300 parents, teachers and township residents gathered at Grandview Elementary School on Wednesday night that the board should consider closing Ridgefield Elementary School, Vernondale Elementary School or both.

If the board were to close one, it should be Ridgefield because the students could be moved to other elementary schools and because the district has a buyer for the building, Hall said. Closing one school would save the district $1.4 million, he said, closing both would save $2.4 million.

Ridgefield, at 3227 Highland Road, serves 271 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Vernondale, at 1432 Wilkins Road, serves 245 students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

Closing two schools would be "challenging," but is being discussed as an option, said Hall, who is leading the district with Superintendent Michael Golde on leave and set to resign.

Hall also proposed restructuring the district's three middle schools, which use a team teaching approach, into a junior high model, or eliminating all elective programs across all grades.

Restructuring middle schools would save $1.6 million through the elimination of 24 teaching positions but also reduce instructional time in core subjects because of scheduling changes.

Middle school teachers and principals objected to the proposal, saying it would also cut collaboration among teachers.

Junior high schools are "subject centered, not student centered," Marlene Kloss, a teacher at J.S. Wilson Middle School, said before the meeting. Middle schools, she said, are "the right thing to do for our kids."

Cutting electives and "encore" programs would save the district $1.3 million through the elimination of 19 teaching positions, Hall said. Closing two elementary schools would eliminate the need for any middle school or extracurricular changes.

He also suggested that the board raise property taxes by 0.25 mill, the maximum allowed under state law.

A 0.25 mill increase would raise roughly $900,000 in revenue for the district. For the owner of a home assessed at $100,000, that increase would mean an additional $25 in property taxes, bringing the bill to $1,268.

Hall said last week that the district had already found $4.1 million in possible savings, including $1.6 million from staff attrition and retirement and $1.3 million from delaying the purchase of updated textbooks.

Taken together, the new proposals would save the district between $3.8 million and $5.1 million, depending on if and how many schools are closed and whether middle schools are restructured or extracurriculars eliminated, Hall said.

"With those decisions, we're in the ballpark," he said.

The projected $8.8 million deficit is included in a $93.7 million preliminary budget for 2013-14 that Hall presented to the School Board earlier this month. The deficit, Hall said then, was due in part to rising costs: salaries are expected to increase by $1.9 million, retirement contributions by $2.9 million, and cyber school costs by more than $1 million. Special-education costs are also expected to increase.

But the deficit is also a product of years of bad practice, he said. The district balanced budgets using reserve funds in some recent years, instead of raising taxes or cutting programs or staff to contain costs, for instance, he said.

Sarah McCartney cradled her 10-month-old son, Alexander, as she listened to Hall's presentation. She knew the closure of Ridgefield, her old school, was an option, so she made a yellow sign that sat propped in Alexander's stroller.

"My mommy was a lion," the sign read, referring to the school's mascot. "I'd love to be one too!"

Ridgefield is a tight-knit community where everyone knows each other, she said.

"It's not about the numbers," McCartney said. "It's about students and their education."

BY ERICA ERWIN, Erie Times-News


ERIE TIMES NEWS | April 4, 2013

The Millcreek School Board needs to consider "unprecedented" measures, including restructuring middle schools and closing buildings, to bridge an $8.8 million budget deficit the Millcreek Township School District is facing for 2013-14, Assistant Superintendent William Hall said.

Hall on Wednesday presented the board with a $93.7 million preliminary budget for the school year that is $8.8 million larger than the current year's budget with no new revenue.

The district has already identified $4.1 million in possible savings, including $1.6 million from staff attrition and retirement and $1.3 million from delaying the purchase of updated textbooks, Hall said.

But the board will need to consider a menu of options, including closing buildings, restructuring middle schools, a tax increase and staffing cuts to bridge the remaining $4.7 million gap, he told the board during a special finance committee meeting.

"It's daunting," he said afterward. "But it's necessary, having to make these kind of decisions to balance the budget."

The growing expenses are driven in part by $1.9 million in salary increases, $2.9 million in increases to retirement contributions and rising special education and cyber school costs, Hall said.

"My first reaction is 'wow,'" School Director Judy Wheaton said. "Now is the time for all of us to come together as a community and find some positive solutions."

State law allows the School Board to raise taxes as much as 0.25 mills, which would raise an additional $920,000 in revenue for the district. For the owner of a home assessed at $100,000, that increase would mean an additional $25 in property taxes, bringing the bill to $1,268.

Other options to raise revenue include cutting some support and central office staff, eliminating extracurricular programs, eliminating elective programs across all grades, closing buildings or restructuring middle schools to a junior high model to save staffing costs, Hall said.

He did not offer any hard figures for how much money any of those measures would save the district immediately or in the long term, or any details about which schools might be closed or how any or all of the district's three middle schools -- James S. Wilson Middle School, Westlake Middle School and Walnut Creek Middle School -- could be restructured or when that might happen.

School Director Rebecca Mancini said the board has hard decisions to make moving forward.

"I deeply regret the position we're in," Mancini said. "I'm confident we will make the right decisions and protect instructional programming for our students."

The budget is the first for Hall, who has been leading the district since Superintendent Michael Golde went on leave in January. Golde intends to resign by June 30.

Beyond a spending plan, district officials have indicated they want to restore trust in the district after a recently released audit from the 2011-12 school year showed that the district revenue and expenses were off by $3.8 million when comparing budget projections and reality.

The audit by the Erie firm of Felix and Gloekler also showed that Golde had transferred $5 million from a capital projects fund to the general fund without the board's approval.

District officials pledged to be more conservative in financial planning, and at least one board member said the board would be more hands-on when it came to the district's finances in the wake of the revelations.

Hall said earlier this week that the 2013-14 preliminary budget is a realistic picture of the district's financial state and a good starting point for discussion.

The board took no vote related to the proposal at the meeting but will meet again for further discussion on Wednesday at 6 p.m. at a site still to be determined. The administration has typically presented the budget in May but started earlier this year in attempt to give the board and the community more time to understand the budget and the district's finances, officials have said.

By law, the district must have a preliminary budget in place by May. The board must vote on a final budget for the upcoming school year by June 30.

BY ERICA ERWIN, Erie Times-News




ERIE TIMES NEWS | February 26, 2013


The board also revoked an earlier resolution to construct a new Gus Anderson Field.

The board voted 8-0 in favor of keeping the field in its current location between McDowell Senior and McDowell Intermediate high schools, underscoring recent statements from the School Board and administration that they plan to significantly scale back the $94 million proposal to revamp the McDowell High School campus.




ERIE TIMES NEWS | February 14, 2013

The Millcreek School Board is taking another look at McDowell High School renovation plans with the goal of making the project smaller and less expensive.

Millcreek Township School District officials said last week that the project, which was slated to break ground this year, was on hold because the district's emerging financial issues made the $94 million proposal unrealistic.

The School Board is looking at alternatives to demolishing McDowell Senior High School, adding 200,000 square feet on to McDowell Intermediate High School and building a new Gus Anderson Field.

School Board members all agreed that the larger proposal is no longer financially viable for the district.

"Now it's about what we can do and what we can afford," said School Board President Terry Scutella. "Things have changed since we voted in July."

Scutella pointed to a number of potential costs looming over the district, including an expansion at the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine that will chip away at tax revenue and the proposed Erie Biosciences Academy Charter School that would divert some state funding. He also said the results of the most recent audit show the district needs to budget more conservatively in the immediate future after overestimating revenue and underestimating expenses last school year.

Another complication: The Millcreek Township Zoning Board rejected the district's request to have fewer parking spaces on campus than required. Scutella said the district would have to spend money to either challenge that ruling or buy more property for parking.

"Until we really sit down and look at the next few years of finances in depth, it'll be premature to say what we should do," board member Shawn Conrad said.

At least for the time being, the board plans to use $26.7 million it borrowed for the renovation project in 2010 to fund the scaled-back renovations.

But board member Michael Kobylka said he would like to see the district return that money even if it has to pay a small penalty, because he thinks work can be done for much less.

"I think $10 million worth of work would be plenty and would last us a few more years," Kobylka said. "Nothing is falling apart, and nothing is dangerous."

Some board members, including Brian Kramer, said they'd still like to see the two schools merged in the long run.

"I'm still for consolidation," Kramer said. "I'm not saying I want to do a $100 million project, but patching things for $15 million is not good enough."

Scutella and several other board members said the future plan will likely be a smaller renovation that will leave room for later expansion.

Board members polled this week said they're approaching the project as a three- to five-year plan.

Board member Judy Wheaton said one possible scenario would be to build a new science wing on McDowell Intermediate that could expand years later.

"Something has to be done more than just a paint and patch," Wheaton said.

That wing would address McDowell Senior's lack of science lab space, which several board members said is one of the biggest problems at the 60-year-old building.

Ronald Wilga said he'd like to see new labs for both buildings.

"We desperately need to do something with our science labs," Wilga said. "The labs in McDowell are the kind I had when I was in high school, and that wasn't last year."

Several Board members also raised concerns about the walkway between McDowell Senior and McDowell Intermediate.

But plans to build a new Gus Anderson Field on the east side of Caughey Road seem to have been discarded.

"I want to see an overall plan without the field moving," John DiPlacido said.

Gus Anderson Field "is not the priority," Mike Palermo said. "Changes that affect our classrooms are the main thing. And our technology and infrastructure need updates."

Instead, the existing field will likely see improvements like new turf and possibly an expanded track.

"It's hard to say what we want to do moving forward before we arrive at a viable long-range plan," said Rebecca Mancini.

Mancini said she hopes that plan has more input from the public than the previous $94 million proposal.

She said one way people can have their voices heard would be to come to meetings of the district's new School Community Relations Committee. That committee will next meet on March 11.

Gino Montagna, who organized No New McDowell, a citizens group opposing the consolidation plans, said he was happy to see the board reconsidering its plans because the $94 million proposal was too expensive.

"It depends on what they end up doing, but I think the taxpayers won," Montagna said. "We just want to see them fix what needs to be fixed."