Portage Public Schools planning for $8M budget deficit

Kalamazoo and Battle Creek

PORTAGE (WOOD) — The Portage Public Schools Board of Education had its turn Monday to see what types of cuts will have to be made to make up for lost revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Superintendent Mark Bielang started the meeting by saying in his 25 years as a superintendent, “this is by far the most difficult budgeting cycle that I’ve ever been through.”

“Never have there been this many unknowns as we go in to a budgeting year,” he continued, prefacing director of finance Paula Johnson’s budget presentation. “There’s some gut-wrenching decisions we have to make. “

Johnson is working on the outlook that the district will receive a funding reduction of $650 to $750 per pupil, creating an $8 million deficit in the 2020-2021 budget that is due July 1.

Board members pushed back on the projected reduction. Trustee Kurt Droppers told the board he thinks the state is giving districts the “worst-case scenario.”

“They want us to feel good about only a $300 loss per kid,” he said.

Johnson said other area districts are also presenting their budgets using the $650 reduction as well.

Cuts planned for the upcoming budget include a 7% reduction in administration costs, elimination of book purchasing for media centers, reduction in curriculum expenses, a reduction in new curriculum purchases, changes to early childhood programming, reduction of paraprofessionals, and a reduction of 7% in teacher staffing costs pending discussions with the Portage Education Association.  

Johnson noted teacher salaries are 60% of the general fund budget. She said unless the district goes into negotiations with the PEA calling for a reduction in salaries, the 7% cuts would be have to be a “reduction in force.”

When asked if those 7% reductions would be implemented July 1, Johnson answered, “Yes.”

Beilang noted that if the state funding cuts are not as severe as projected, “We’ll be reviewing those places reductions have been made and systematically looking at what can be reinstated and what needs to be reinstated.”

“Once we initiate a 7% reduction in administrative costs and teaching staff, there’s no turning back,” Trustee Joanne Wilson countered.

She agreed with Droppers that the projected reduction is a “worst-case scenario” and argued the district shouldn’t rush to start cutting until it knows for sure what the funding will be.

Beilang said the administration needs to start sending out notifications now, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t reinstate some of those positions as the school year goes on.”

Middle school athletics are likely to see cuts. Currently, football, girls volleyball, boys & girls cross country, boys and girls basketball, wrestling, boys and girls swimming, and boys and girls track are currently offered at all three middle schools.  

“It sounds like middle school sports is an easy cut because ‘Who needs ’em?’ but I do worry about a lot of kids out there,” Trustee Rusty Rahtburn addressed the anticipated cuts. “Middle school sports keeps them engaged, specifically football and basketball. I’m worried about some minority populations getting good grades and staying eligible.

“There’s a lot more than goes on in a public school, even the learning experiences and the mentoring that happen within the drama department, within the athletics department, within in so many stuff that is outside the classroom,” he continued. “If we didn’t need that face-to-face, we could always do online learning. There’s a lot of stuff that happens after 3:00.”

Rathburn worried there would be a domino effect in readiness, pointing to the gap between Rocket football, which ends in sixth grade, and high school football.

Board Vice President Terri Novaria said if they have to cut middle school sports, there might be a way to get the community to “help fund those things.”  

Droppers asked Bielang what would happen if the worst-case scenario becomes reality.

“How about 5% of our kids don’t show? 400 kids? That’s another $3 million bucks,” he said.

Bielang said the district will need to continue looking at areas it has made cuts and could make “deeper cuts.”

“(A) drastic situation will make us take drastic measures,” he said.

“Every one of these line items has a great argument not to do it,” Trustee Robert Snyder reminded fellow board members. “And you know what, there’s only so much money coming in and we got to balance this out because when people take their check to the bank, it has to clear the bank. That’s the bottom line.”  

The presentation did not include the amount of money each projected cut would save the district.

The Board of Trustees will meet in a special session next Monday for a budget hearing and to take action on the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 budgets.  

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