Speer: Superintendents wrestling with finances

The pain in their voices was evident, the emotions expressed genuine.

It may not have been tears, but eyes misted over, voices rose an octave on more than one occasion.

I recently sat in a room of school superintendents and one by one, listened to their stories. None were pretty. All involved sacrifice. The past was gone, the present clouded at best and the future – one of hope mixed with uncertainty.

At the end of our meeting two distinct themes resonated with me.

The first – these superintendents are at the end of their rope, and there is nothing else left.

The second – none of these superintendents really want to be sitting in the political climate they find themselves in right now, and all blame Lansing bureaucrats for their predicament.

Alpena Superintendent Brent Holcomb, Alcona Superintendent Shawn Thornton, Hillman Superintendent Shawn Olson, Atlanta Superintendent Don Haskin and AMA ESD Superintendent Brian Wilmot sat with me to discuss the AMA ESD’s decision to seek enhancement millage for each of the schools next month.

The millage – three mills over 10 years – will appear on ballots Feb. 26 in each of the communities. The overall tabulation of the vote will determine its outcome. For instance, if voters in Hillman, Atlanta and Alcona voted it down, but a majority of Alpena voters approved it, it is conceivable the Alpena vote might be strong enough to pass the millage for all four districts.

While I think it fair to say this would not have been something any of the superintendents would have naturally sought on their own, desperate times require desperate actions. And, I also believe it fair to say none of the superintendents would disagree with my reference to desperate times in their districts.

Holcomb, probably the most vocal of the four, described in detail the “slash and burn” mentality the administration in each district has had to enact in recent years in order to survive financially. Thornton, the most emotional, described how there was nothing left to cut anymore. In nursery rhyme terminology, “Mother Hubbard’s cupboards are bare.”

Each superintendent has reduced staff, eliminated programs, consolidated services and dipped deeply into cash reserves. Some, like Alpena, have closed schools. All feel the threat from home schooling, charter schools and Internet classes.

Each believes his or her back is up against the wall, and there is nowhere else to turn. And none – zilch, zap, nadda – are happy with Lansing bureaucrats, who they contend continue to react like ostriches with heads buried in the ground, ignoring the depth of the consequences schools across the state face.

Holcomb said there won’t be another “Black Friday” ever again in Alpena, where the district shuts down for a temporary period. If Alpena ever gets to that stage again, he said, it would be closing the doors to the schools forever.

He indicated that while Alpena is not there yet, other districts across the state are precariously holding on by a thread. And, he does expect Alpena to soon be added to the “Critical Watch List” of districts in Michigan in financial crisis.

Wilmot, in a news story this week, called the enhancement millage “very important to our local schools – it’s critical.”

If approved, the millage money would give each district some temporary relief to avoid them having to make drastic changes and cuts yet again and instead, might allow them to bring back some programs, or at least purchase some new textbooks for students.

Diane Block, APS assistant superintendent who also sat in on the meeting, told her APS board recently the district faces some tough financial times and a budget deficit. If the millage passes, the deficit would be eliminated. If not, then …

It’s that unknown that has school administrators not sleeping at night.

Where does that line of diminishing returns actually lie for districts?

None of the superintendents I talked with wants to be the first to discover that answer.

They’re hoping voters in February aren’t anxious to discover that answer either.