Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 12, 2013

TBAISD may share part of cash stash with local districts

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Big fund balances -- tens of millions of dollars worth -- in Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District coffers prompted some area school officials to ask why cash-strapped local districts aren’t receiving more money from the ISD.

Members of the Traverse City Area Public Schools' Board of Education are expected to vote Monday on whether to approve the TBAISD general education fund budget. Board of education members from 15 other local public districts will cast similar votes this month.

Some members of local district boards see a vote against the general education budget as a way to publicly oppose TBAISD's accumulation of nearly $35 million in a handful of operating and capital project funds at a time when many local district struggle with annual financial shortfalls.

"As of today, I am inclined to vote no," TCAPS Board of Education President Kelly Hall said Friday.

But TBAISD's swelling fund balances might not be so large for long. A committee of local superintendents and TBAISD officials is at work on a formula to distribute some cash reserves to local districts over a five-year period.

The ISD-led committee came together in recent weeks amid a Record-Eagle review of the ISD's fund balance, as well as local district officials' growing concerns about the cash reserves, TBAISD Superintendent Mike Hill said.

Hill said TBAISD's Board of Education for years discussed its large fund balances and the possibility of increasing services and funding to local districts.

"It's perhaps long overdue and it's a healthy discussion. It's a good discussion," Hill said. "We're very glad we're having it. This is for the benefit of the region and the benefit of the students in the region."

TBAISD serves 36 public, charter and non-public schools in the Grand Traverse region with a wide range of services, including career technical training, special education programming, adult education classes, and business and administrative services.

The intermediate district operates with a $60 million annual budget. The ISD's $8.9-million general education fund has a balance of about $4 million.

Roughly $8 million of the overall budget is tied to vocational education and funds TBAISD's Career-Tech Center. The vocational education fund holds about $5.2 million in excess reserves.

The majority of TBAISD's yearly budget — about $42 million — is tied to the special education fund, which contains about $16.5 million in cash reserves.

Large portions of each of the three funding pools are derived from local tax millages.

Hall called TBAISD's special education fund balance "unacceptable" in light of TCAPS' $6.8 million in unfunded, annual special education costs. TBAISD set aside over $3 million in cash reverses each of the last five years, she said.

"While districts around them starve," Hall said.

For years, Leland Public School's Board of Education either voted against the ISD's general fund budget or abstained from voting on it.

Leland Board of Education President Bill Robinson said TBAISD does a good job, especially with special education and career tech services. But TBAISD officials have not offered compelling reasons for the hefty fund balances.

"It's a general view that this system doesn't seem to be helpful. We don't want to talk just about the general (education) fund. We want to talk about the other funds," Robinson said. "It's taxpayer money. Let's use it wisely for kids."

Hill is scheduling a special TBAISD board meeting to discuss reducing fund balances in the general, special, and vocational education funds to levels between 15 and 30 percent — the intermediate district has a current overall fund balance of about 58 percent. TBAISD also would maintain a capital project fund, a fund for cleaning up contamination at the Career-Tech Center, and a third fund designated for innovative programming.

Hill said his challenge now is to balance recommendations from the superintendents' committee with providing fair and equitable wages to TBAISD staffers. The intermediate school district is in the middle of collective bargaining negotiations.

But things could be worse.

"We're thankful we've been responsible and we're having this discussion instead of a discussion of bill-backs and lay-offs," Hill said.