By DAVID GREEN
One crisis averted; more on the horizon.
Morenci Area Schools is now out of deficit for the current school year and should have a fund equity of about $108,000 to start the next year. A cash shortfall is expected to come up again in the 2013-14 school year unless significant changes in school operation are made.
District finance director Erica Metcalf initially projected a deficit of $325,000 when the 2013-14 budget was approved last June. The deficit dropped to $118,000 by August following a two percent pay cut taken by teachers, and when school board members met for the January meeting, the general fund deficit was down to $83,000.
Metcalf spoke about the arrival of unexpected property tax revenue and an insurance claim settlement, and she mentioned an impending change in special education reimbursement. She hoped that additional revenue could bring the district out of the red by the end of the school year, but it happened much sooner than that.
During a Finance Committee meeting last week, Metcalf gave additional information about special education funding that tipped the balance and brought the district into the black.
School board president Scott Merillat said administrators put a lot of time into trimming expenses, but then took a closer look at revenue to determine if some had been underestimated.
The biggest change came in how the Lenawee ISD is reimbursing for special education costs this year. In the past, he said, reimbursement was based on expenses, but this year the formula followed a per pupil basis.
"For us that worked out to be a huge advantage," Merillat said, "since we had cut our costs."
The new model favors districts that run a leaner program, explained Morenci superintendent Michael Osborne.
"Districts that were spending more were getting more in return," he said.
The change resulted in $150,000 of revenue that wasn't budgeted.
Climbing back into the black will remove the need to file a deficit elimination plan with the state.
"We were able to fix the problem rather than having to explain how we were going to get out of it," Merillat said.
Budgeting is always a challenge, he said, because a spending plan has to be established before enrollment and state support are known, and when certain costs are still unknown.
"It worked out really well and solved our short-term need," Merillat said.
"We're still spending more than we're taking in and that can't continue," Osborne added. "If nothing changes, we would be in a structural deficit next year"—a position where the debt could not be erased.
The recent funding change took away the urgency to make changes for the current school year, Merillat said, but the district can't operate the same way in the next school year.
"We want to put together a comprehensive, long-range plan during the next two or three months," he said.
Board members, staff and administrators have looked at cuts over recent years, but Merillat said it's time to look beyond that and consider how staff members will be used and where they will be placed. Other than some retire/rehire situations, the district’s operating model is essentially the same as when there were 1,000 pupils instead of the current 720, Merillat said.
Supt. Osborne is one of six finalists to lead the Tecumseh school district, forcing board members to think about Morenci's superintendent post should it need to be filled. The board must consider whether it’s best to share a superintendent between two districts, as is currently done with Hudson, or whether the district would be better served by a superintendent who also functions as a building principal. Several other positions—including the athletic director, technology coordinator, transportation supervisor, maintenance supervisor, business office and principals—are all among the jobs to think about, Merillat suggested.
BOND ISSUE—Osborne said the bond proposal effort continues to move forward at the state level. Meetings will be scheduled in the future to collect ideas from staff and community members for ways to cut costs and for maintenance ideas that would be addressed by the bond issue.
A preliminary look at maintenance needs offers a positive picture for the levy.
"I was very pleased when we learned the cost of what's needed can be done without raising taxes," Osborne said.
Rather than create a new tax, the board will ask voters to extend the millage already in place.