Lansing School District decides to close schools to trim budget

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By Kate Mudgett
Lansing Star staff writer

To resolve an estimated $30 million deficit, the Lansing School District is looking to make some drastic changes, including several school closures.

At its April 21 meeting, the Lansing District Board of Education officially voted to close Woodcreek Elementary and consolidate with Dwight Rich Middle School.  The restructured school will become a kindergarten through eighth grade academy and is set to open next fall.

“You have to start somewhere, and there really isn’t any place left to start that is not going to have an impact on our kids,” said Myra Ford, Lansing District Board of Education secretary.

C. W. Otto Middle School and Bingham Elementary are also on the chopping block.  A board vote about the future of these schools is expected on April 27.

In a letter, to district parents, addressing the district’s budget problems, Superintendent Dr. T. C. Wallace, Jr. said, “As a public school district, we do not have the ability to charge tuition or increase our operating budget through millages.  Therefore, our entire funding existence is at the mercy of the State Legislature and Governor.”

The letter included a request for parents and community members to contact their legislator to voice their opinion on the “very serious situation.”

“As much as I dislike the idea of closing schools, the district is in a difficult position,” said Shirley McClain, whose two sons currently attend Woodcreek.  “I just hope these cuts do not negatively impact the education our children receive in this district.”

The proposed school closure plan by Wallace is broken into three parts: the immediate, the short term (1-3 years), and the long term (3-5 years).  While Otto, Bingham, and Woodcreek are on the immediate list, the proposal also recommends the closing of another elementary and the possibility of consolidating high schools. The proposal states that these future closures will likely occur due to the projected decline in enrollment.

While the plan to condense the current three high schools into one mega high school was not discussed at the school board meeting, many parents are concerned that it is not far from becoming a reality.

The district has 31 school buildings in operation.  If all of the steps of the closure plan are completed the district could be down to 13 or 14 buildings.

This would mean 12 elementary schools, one ninth grade academy and possibly only one or two high schools.  The remaining elementary schools would house students from  kindergarten through eighth grade.

“I have a hard time believing the attention that our students receive now will not decline when there is only one high school in the district,” said Brenda Bolin, a parent with three kids in Lansing schools.  “I would rather have higher taxes then send my children to subpar schools.”

Why Otto, Bingham, and Woodcreek?

The 2010 Census data shows that Michigan’s population is down 0.6 percent and that Lansing has been declining since 1990. As a result, school enrollment is also declining. This is not the case for all Lansing district schools, but the three schools whose numbers have declined significantly in the last two years are on the list to close.

Woodcreek’s enrollment has declined by more than 10 percent in the last two years, and Bingham is down 7 percent. All the district’s middle schools have seen a decline in enrollment. While Otto does not have the highest enrollment reduction, it runs at 31 percent utilization, meaning 69 percent of the schools space is going underutilized.

The consolidation of these three schools would save the district an estimated $1.6 million in facility and operation costs.

“Really, in the grand scheme of things, when we are looking at a $30 million deficit, this is a drop in the bucket,” said Board of Education member Nicole Armbruster.

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Other Budget Cuts

Wages and benefits, which account for about 85 percent of operating costs for the average Michigan school district, are also being examined.  Chief Financial Officer Venkat Saripalli presented a plan to the board on Thursday includes a 10 percent wage reduction from all district employees.  With an approximate 2,000 employees, the cut would save an estimated $12 million.

Lansing currently has 13,500 students, according to Saripalli, but that number is expected to fall for the 2011-12 school year.  Currently, the district receives around $7,300 per student in state aid.  This is expected to be less next year.  Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget proposal cuts up to $470 per student.

Board President Shirley Rodgers says the biggest problem the board faces is the uncertainty of state funding.  “We’re put in a terrible position because we don’t know how much money we’re truly going to have.”

More decisions on school closures and other cuts the district faces will likely be made at the April 27 board meeting.

Where are Lansing schools?

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The schools slated for changes are marked with a red triangle symbol.

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