Budget cuts at Portage schools could impact 100 employees

Kalamazoo and Battle Creek

PORTAGE, Mich. (WOOD) — Portage Public Schools is one of many school districts trying to make up budget shortfalls for amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The school board approved a budget Monday night that could leave approximately 100 staff members without a job in a “worst-case scenario.”

Superintendent Mark Bielang says 36 teachers and 60 paraprofessional positions could be eliminated for the 2020-2021 school year. Other support staff positions could also be cut.

“It’s not something that we really wanted to do, but as we assess the information that was coming to us from various financial sources that we normally rely on, we took a worst-case scenario approach,” Bielang said.

Middle school sports are not funded in the budget, but the superintendent says there could be other ways to support the programs. Bielang says cuts are needed to make up for the current shortfall in funding this year and losses expected next year.

“Over a two year period, we’re looking at $8 million in reduction,” Bielang said.

Chris Furlong, the president of the Portage Education Association, wants the district to temporarily tap into its fund balance to offset some cuts.

“What’s the rainy day fund for. It’s raining right now, and so we definitely need to invest in our children’s education,” Furlong said.

Board Trustee Joanne Willson says Michigan requires a 5% fund balance when averaged over three years or the state could intervene in running the district.

Willson voted no on the budget because she says it did not provide enough financial details.

“What it’s going to save? What’s the difference between our 19-20 budget and what would be the difference in our 20-21 budget?” Willson said.

Willson says she has asked for clarification on what the 7% reduction in teacher staffing cost would mean and whether that would include pay cuts and factor in benefits.

“Are you asking for a cut in the number of teachers or are you cutting the cost of pay to our teachers?” Willson said.

Furlong says cutting 36 teachers would be detrimental to students and is not sure how that could work with current staffing.

“Class sizes, I feel like are over capacity, you know, 32 kids to a classroom and at the elementary room upwards of 25 to 28,” Furlong said.

The superintendent says this budget has been especially difficult to prepare.

“I just finished my 25th year as a superintendent and this is by far the most difficult budgeting process I’ve ever been through with all of the unknowns that we have,” Bielang said.

The district had to have a budget passed before July 1st, but the board can still make changes.

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