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Count Day nears for Michigan schools, with vital funds at stake
The Detroit News
By: Jennifer Chambers
October 01, 2013

For Michigan’s 56 school districts with budget deficits, Count Day is especially crucial as they try to stay open and out of state control.

Ninety percent of state funding for the year is at stake Wednesday during Michigan’s official fall Count Day, which will include about 1.5 million students in traditional public and charter schools.

While state education officials are working with the 56 troubled districts on plans to erase their debts, in other districts across the state, declining enrollment and the resulting loss in per-pupil state aid have accentuated a long-running financial crisis.

The Michigan Department of Education has warned many districts to make deeper budget cuts to stay solvent and avoid a fate similar to the Inkster school system, which was closed and split up among four neighboring districts over the summer.

“Increased enrollment is increased opportunity for our current students and new students,” said Joanne Lelekatch, superintendent of the East Detroit school district, which has a $5 million deficit. “Count Day has taken on a new significance for all districts.”

The results of Count Day, which come later in the year, will give educators a clearer picture of where they stand financially for the rest of the school year and whether they need to make deeper, immediate cuts.

The bulk of a district’s per-pupil funding will be determined by this week’s count, while a second count taken in February is worth 10 percent. Both numbers determine funding for the 2013-14 school year.

The East Detroit schools saw an uptick in students last year after a 14-year decline, and the Macomb County district expects to see an increase again this school year. Enrollment is around 3,900 students in the district, which expects to erase its deficit by 2015 and get off the state watch list.

Lelekatch credits an aggressive marketing campaign in a corner of the county where education has become a competitive marketplace. Yet she set her budget conservatively, projecting 50 fewer students to avoid cuts to programs she already promised students.

“With Schools of Choice, we lose students,” she said. “We budget based on projected enrollment. If those numbers don’t come in, you have to make cuts.”

Enrollment ebbs and flows for districts where the state’s Schools of Choice program is at play. That kind of student movement can wreak havoc on finances, and it’s increasing.

In 2001, when parents were first able to switch districts under Schools of Choice, about 39,000 students made the move statewide. Last year, nearly 105,000 children were enrolled as choice students in a district other than their own.

Districts with strong marketing campaigns can attract more choice students and reap financial benefits. Half of Clintondale Community Schools’ enrollment of 3,400 is comprised of choice students from other districts.

For all of their students, whether they’re in-district or choice enrollees, Michigan districts get a minimum of $7,026 in state aid.

When it comes to enrollment figures and per-pupil funds, one district’s loss can be another’s gain.

All four of the neighboring districts that absorbed children from Inkster — Taylor, Wayne-Westland, Romulus and Westwood — are expected to see increases in enrollment with 200-300 new students in each district.

Under a new state law, districts that take students from dissolved districts get 10 percent above their own per-pupil foundation grant. In Romulus, the district gets $8,422 for each student; it will receive $9,286 for each Inkster child for the next three years.

In the Pontiac School District, which is trying to hire a consultant to carry out a consent agreement with the state to erase its $37.7 million deficit, the count could go either way, said Aimee McKeever, president of the Pontiac Education Association. Class sizes range from 47 in one elementary school to 15 in one high school class.

“Some new families have joined the district and a lot of our previous families are leaving because of the consent agreement,” McKeever said.

For some districts, Count Day is a day of hope. In Detroit Public Schools, officials pushed an extensive recruitment and enrollment campaign this summer to add 5,000 new students. DPS has lost 250,000 students since the 1960s.

In an effort to maximize attendance Wednesday, DPS and its Office of School Nutrition created an initiative Monday called “Eat to Win on Count Day.”

Prizes for students in kindergarten through grade 12 include iPad Minis, gift cards, 200 bikes for children in grades K-8 and more. One of every 4 DPS high school students will win a prize for full attendance on Count Day.

The district is serving a special meal: barbecue chicken, baked macaroni and cheese, seasoned green beans, coleslaw, a corn muffin and peach cobbler. About 83 percent of DPS students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Betti Wiggins, executive director of the Office of School Nutrition for DPS, said she hopes the Count Day program will increase participation in the breakfast and lunch program and encourage full attendance.

“Increasing access and awareness of healthy foods is fundamental to student academic achievement and the community well-being on many levels,” she said.

jchambers@detroitnews.com
(313) 222-2269

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