School Officials’ Definition Of Spending Cuts Different From Most People's

‘Cuts’ don’t add up, but superintendent’s tale of hard times from enrollment declines rings true

Utica Community Schools is facing a potential financial crisis due to years of spending more than it takes in, according to the report of a fact-finder brought in due to a contract impasse between the district and the teachers union. The district has faced declining enrollment in recent years, which means less funding under Michigan’s school finance system in which money follows the student.

The fact-finder’s report contains an exchange of letters between the district and state school finance officials who were sounding alarms about the district’s fiscal trajectory. In her response, Utica Superintendent Christine Johns wrote that the district had “implemented $107 million in cuts” over the past 13 years.

ForTheRecord says: The ways that school officials define spending ‘cuts’ are not always what they appear. Utica has posted a list of its cuts, and a comparison of them with the district’s annual budget from 2009 (the earliest available) until 2017 illustrates the problem.

Utica’s list is a collection of line items that add up to $79.7 million in “permanent budget reductions” from the 2008-09 school year through the 2016-17 school year. Except, Utica’s annual general fund spending did not decline over that period. Instead, it rose by $12.4 million, from $261.7 million in 2008-09 to $274.1 million in 2016-17. This despite an enrollment decline of 1,396 students over that eight-year period.

Granted, annual general fund spending did go down if measured in inflation-adjusted numbers. It went from the 2017 inflation-adjusted equivalent of $297.2 million in 2008-09 to $274.1 million in 2016-17. But that still doesn’t add up to the kind of reductions claimed.

Utica also claimed in the budget reductions document that it cut 625.8 full-time equivalency jobs from its budget from 2009-10 to 2016-17. While that may be accurate, according to the state’s data, the district must have added other jobs because Utica’s jobs count from that time didn’t drop by nearly that much. Utica had 3,016 FTEs in 2009-10, which dropped to 2,711 in 2016-17. That’s a significant reduction of 305 positions, but less than half what the district claimed.

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