Former Board of Education Member Speaks on AAPS Budget Deficit 

Ann Arbor Public Schools recently announced that 25 million dollars needs to be cut from their budget. Many people in the community have voiced concern that teacher position cuts and class size increases could affect the quality of education for students.

Former Board of Education Member Andy Thomas was a Board of Education member from 2010 to 2016.

“I am retired and now live in Dexter, so I have no current connection with AAPS,” said Thomas. “I would describe myself as an interested observer, but not a participant.”

According to Thomas, the district has faced similar deficits before.

“Believe it or not, this is pretty much in line with other budget shortfalls,” Thomas said. “When I joined the Board of Education in 2010, we were facing an annual structural deficit in the range of $18 to $23 million. The cuts were made between 2010 and 2013 were very deep, and very difficult. However, they were partially offset by drawing down the district’s fund equity, which at once time was as high as $25 million. By 2013, this was spent down to $6 million. The fund equity was widely viewed as the district’s ‘rainy day’ fund, intended to shelter the district from economic downturns and reductions in state funding.”

Thomas said that at that time where the cuts were made between 2010 and 2013, several measures were taken to address the continuing deficits.

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“Transportation, food service, custodial and maintenance services were outsourced,” said Thomas. “Teachers and support staff made salary and benefit concessions. Middle school schedules were restructured to eliminate ‘eight hour,’  reducing the number of available electives. Cuts were made to athletics, music and drama. There was a moratorium on the purchase of new library materials. Reductions were made to the number of reading intervention specialists, social workers, counselors and other ancillary staff. The ‘walk zone’ for students was increased from 1 to 1.5 miles, reducing transportation. There were many other cuts, all of which were extremely painful.”

Overall, the district at the time was able to avoid major lay-offs and school closures, according to Thomas — with the exception of Roberto Clement Center. At the time, reductions in classroom teachers was accomplished through attrition,  rather than layoffs.

“This year’s deficit is different, in that there are no large potential savings to be gained by the outsourcing, such as transportation,” Thomas said. “There may be some room for a few cost-cutting measures here and there, but the real issue is staffing costs.”

Decreasing student enrollment and increasing teacher staff is reportedly part of the current budget problem. Funding per pupil is about $10,000 per child, so if 1,000 students leave the district, that is a $10 million dollar shortfall right there.

At the same time, if the district increases the employee number to 480 new positions, which includes 417 teachers, and other expansions in the workforce, that affects the budget as well. Salaries and benefits were also reportedly recently increased by the district by $13 million dollars.

“These are certainly the main factors. From what I’ve read, the raises amounted to around 13 million per year, which includes benefits,” Thomas said. “The per-student foundation grant the district receives from the state is $10,102 per the State of Michigan website. So a decrease in enrollment of 1,000 students from pre-pandemic levels would mean a loss of $10 million in revenue. But I don’t know what base number of students was used in the budget projection for the year.”

Thomas also believes that it is inevitable that teacher cuts will be made, and class sizes will increase.

“Unfortunately, I do not see any way that the budget can be balanced without affecting class size,” Thomas said. “In the past, the district has prioritized maintaining reasonably low class sizes in the early elementary grades, with middle- and high schools absorbing the greatest increase in class size.  Another possible approach would be to reduce or eliminate certain upper-level elective courses—such as third- or fourth-year foreign languages — which would affect a relatively low number of students.”

Thomas said that low enrollment numbers are not just unique to the Ann Arbor school district.

“It is important to recognize that the decline in enrollment is not unique to AAPS,” Thomas said. “Nation-wide, there has been a well-documented reduction in public school enrollment post-pandemic. In some districts, the decline has been in excess of 20%. This decline in public school enrollment cannot be attributed to an increase in enrollment at charter or private schools, which  has remained steady or increased slightly since the pandemic.”

Additionally, homeschooling, online learning and other alternative learning options are increasing nationwide.

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