Parents question Schools of Choice

Parents arrived at the School of Choice forum April 29 at Devil’s Ridge Golf Club with open minds and plenty of concerns about their children and their community.
Superintendent Dr. William Skilling decided to have the meeting after talking to people over the last few weeks.
‘It was mostly for the concerned parents,? he said. ‘I wanted to let people know why we have schools of choice and take input from the audience.
‘The message I wanted to get out was Oxford is the only (district) in the county, and one of few in the state, still growing and not in deficit,? continued Skilling.
He began the forum by focusing on why Oxford has been so aggressive about attracting new students to the district.
The reason is Proposal A.
Approved by state voters in 1994, the school funding mechanism was meant to provide property tax relief, but it also created an atmosphere in which schools must compete against each other for students.
‘The schools that were doing well would continue to prosper and grow. The schools that weren’t, would have to kick it into gear and improve education or go out of business,? he said. ‘Proposal A was proposed for equity and funding. But the very foundation it solidified did basically the opposite.?
For schools, the only way to increase their revenue is through student growth.
The Math
The district receives $7,500 per student from the state for every pupil attending Oxford Schools. Each year, the state decides ehow much it will contribute to the district.
The cost to put each child through the school system is exactly $8,874 per year, according to Tim Loock, Assistant Supervisor of Business and Operations. (The amount comes from the current amended budget divided by the current student count as of February.)
Every year the district faces particular spending increases they can’t avoid related to retirement funds, employee health insurance, contractual pay raises, and general costs like fuel, utlities and supplies.
As prices naturally rise, so does what the school pays for these items.
Next year, the district is already facing a 7 percent increase for health insurance ($310,000), along with $450,000 for all-day, everyday kindergarten, contract increases and a retirement increase of 4 percent, all of which will lead to a projected $1.8 million deficit.
Skilling has already taken a look at the budget and ways to cut costs, without cutting programs from the students.
One way is to make a revision to the Special Education Delivery program. Oxford currently sends the students 45 minutes away to a center-based program. Instead, the district will keep them in Oxford -not only saving students from the trip and saving money, but the state will pay 90% of the costs for a start-up program, saving $1,051,334.
They have looked at cutting corners by having the custodial staff clean the main areas everyday and classrooms every other day, eliminating secondary bussing, restructuring para-professionals, restructuring administration, and reducing three full-time teachers.
‘We won’t be completely getting rid of the teachers, just moving them to a different location, especially with full-time kindergarten,? Skilling
With the cuts, the district’s revised deficit is $167,428.
Noticing the cost of all-day, everyday kindergarten a parent pointed out, why not start it in fall 2010, when the state mandates all schools be full-time, instead of fall 2009.
‘Other schools will be going to all-day that have Schools of Choice,? answered Skilling. ‘Once you lose a kindergarten student, they are gone for usually 13 years.?
Another negative facing all schools in southeastern Michigan is a population trend that’s predicted to decline until 2020.
While other districts are dipping into their fund balance to pay for their costs, Oxford is watching themselves and being careful not to go into the red.
‘A lot of schools are going to end up going out of business and a lot of consolidation will be going on because they won’t be able to afford to operate their schools,? said Skilling.
Schools of Choice
Oxford has been offering Schools of Choice for the past 12 years and has had interested students every year.
The new additions make up for the students the district’s losing.
Administrators have already been notified by families moving out of the Oxford community and they face the prospect of losing 60 students for next year.
As of April 27, 41 Schools of Choice students had applied for the 2009-10 school year.
The district currently has 194 Schools of Choice students enrolled.
Skilling’s plan is to offset the students lost to families moving by accepting the same amount of School of Choice students to break even, and a few more to stay ahead of rising costs.
Using the example of a typical class of 25 students, the cost of 10 students equals the cost of one first year teacher. When the district loses 60 students in one year, that’s equal to six teachers and the problem continues to compound unless something is done.
‘When you increase enrollment you can keep class sizes at a reasonable level,? said Skilling. ‘If you lose, class sizes go up dramatically because you don’t have the funds to have the teachers.?
Parent Concerns
* Will the quality of the education go down for current Oxford students?
One parent said, ‘An example is bringing someone from a different school district, that is not proficient on MEAP scores, into a district that averages 80 percent. More time will be spent by the teacher teaching that kid or disciplining that kid. The element of education (for) my kid goes down.?
‘How many kids are being helped?? Skilling asked.
‘I am concerned about my kid,? the parent replied back.
‘The idea is we can help some kids that wouldn’t have the same quality of education our kids have,? Skilling replied. ‘I also don’t think diversity is a bad thing either. All kinds.?
‘A 10th or 11th grader that comes into the school has a less likely opportunity to catch up,? said the parent.
* Would the board consider keeping the number of students in Schools of Choice to the number we lost the previous year?
‘My point with that is this, if you do that the only way to close the deficit is to make more cuts every year,? said Skilling. ‘We have to have some growth. We are getting some of our growth from move-ins. The marketing we did has helped to bring people in the community. We aren’t getting that much growth, 44 (students on) average per year. We have to do two things ? work on expenditures and have growth. It takes both.?
* How much space do we have in our schools before we need to go for a bond to expand our middle school?
‘Except for Clear Lake Elementary because that one is full, all the other schools have room,? Skilling said.
The elementaries have room for 200 more kids, the middle school has space for 300 more, and the high school has room for 300 more students.
‘We are only growing 40 kids per year,? answered Skilling. ‘It is possible to see more growth this year, our overall gain is minimal.?
* What about cutting administrative costs and raises?
‘I would love a raise.? a audience member said rising from her seat. ‘I am on a raise freeze right now, and I don’t work for a Smith company in downtown Oxford, I work for a Fortune 500 company. Maybe you need to make some cuts there. I am sure everyone in here would love to get a raise every single year. In today’s economy you are not going to get it.?
Skilling replied, ‘we are making concessions.?
* Issues in the high school and middle schools?
Parents pointed out issues have come up regarding Schools of Choice kids and their children are too afraid to speak up in fear of the having their ‘butts kicked.?
Oxford High School Principal Mike Schweig and Oxford Middle School Principal Ken Weaver pointed out they have had no more issues than they usually do.
‘It’s Oxford students intimidating Oxford students, but we deal with it,? said Schweig.
If there are instances of Schools of Choice students causing problems, Schweig said they should be reported.
‘We can’t deal with it because we don’t know about it,? he said. ‘We will do anything to correct it in a responsible manner.?
Pat Bono, assistant to Skilling, pointed out she screens every student coming in and meets with them.
She looks at their CA60 ? discipline records and looks at their grades before meeting with them.
‘I do something I don’t have to do. I ask the parents for their grades,? she said.
*Where the students are coming from?
They are coming from all over Oakland County. Next year, the majority will be coming from Lapeer, according to school officials.
Parent Comments
As the audience left Devil’s Ridge to go home, a few stayed behind to share their thoughts. They asked to remain anonymous.
‘I love Oxford, I moved here because I had friends here,? said one parent. ‘I don’t want the school to change. I like it the way it is and the programs they have. If they need money to do it, then we need to look back and say, ‘What are we willing to give up if we don’t have Schools of Choice?? I think people have to think about that, too. I don’t know what we will have to give up. I am not willing to give up anything.?
‘I came tonight to hear pros and cons which I did. You could tell the people that were for it and which people were against by their questions.?
‘My focus is living here and in the community, where I grew up,? said another parent. ‘It was good to hear some families from last year’s Schools of Choice students have moved to Oxford. So, that’s a good thing. I am still not comfortable with being responsible as the Oxford taxpayer for paying. Yes, every child deserves an education, ‘leave no child behind,? but it’s about the taxpayer.?
Another concern she had was Schools of Choice parents not volunteering their time at the schools like Oxford parents do.
She pointed out that a parent dropping off their children in the 10th-12th grades is less likely to move to the area because they don’t have to travel as much as a parent with a child in grade school.
‘It would be nice if the community knew what was going on,? said Julie Neff. ‘We didn’t even know (Oxford was a schools of choice participant) until the infomercial (on Channel 7).?
If you have an issue, email the school board,? Neff noted. ‘They have to decide if they will put the issue on their next meeting (agenda). One member can make a motion. I encourage parents to email, and it can be brought up at a business meeting.?
A parent added, ‘it takes a community to call and say if they are for or against it. Get (your) concerns out there like I intend to do.?
Skilling felt the forum was informational for the parents and gave them an understanding what Oxford has held onto while others schools have cut.
‘We have expanded art, AP classes, pay and play in sports is gone, students don’t have to pay admission to get into school events,? he said. ‘And there is no magnetism for a family if we’re cutting programs.?