“We can't overspend state dollars because they only give us so much.”
Superintendent Richard Franklin
Luke Froncheck, Staff Writer, reports The Michigan Department of Education, calling into question financial practices by the Barry Intermediate School District, is recommending that the Great Start Readiness Program be removed from district management.
The recommendation was triggered by a fiscal review of early childhood programs at the BISD.
“Numerous internal financial control and noncompliance issues were identified,” Martin Ackley, director of the MDE's Office of Public and Governmental Affairs, said. “MDE is recommending another intermediate school district take over the financial and administrative responsibilities for the Great Start Readiness Program and Great Start Collaboratives in Barry County.
“This move will not diminish the delivery of early childhood programs and services to the families and children of Barry County.
“Barry ISD has the right to respond to and appeal the findings within 30 days,” Ackley said.
Superintendent Richard Franklin said the Barry ISD has until June 20 to appeal, but that decision has not yet been made.
“We're ready and willing to fight for the GSRP program,” Franklin said. “We think the program is important, and another ISD won't be able to deliver it as well as we do. We are the best ones to do it. I'm not aware of another ISD that wants to come in and take it.
“We don't believe we've done anything wrong.”
The Great Start Readiness Program has a staff of 16 and serves pre-kindergarten students from Delton Kellogg and Hastings school districts.
The MDE fiscal review summary stated: “Given the significant mismanagement of the GSRP funds as documented during this fiscal monitoring spanning two program years, in addition to the exhaustion of GSRP funding with no provision for the start of the 2019-20 school year, the Program Office recommends the funding allocation for the Barry ISD catchment area be awarded to an ISD with geographic proximity and demonstrated capacity to operate/manage successful, high-quality GSRP classrooms.”
Franklin disagreed with the state's findings.
“If they're alleging that we overspent, they only give us X amount of dollars,” he said. “If we overspent, we're spending our dollars.
“We can't overspend state dollars because they only give us so much.”
In its review, MDE reported a total of $129,059 in questioned costs and $34,849 in misclassified costs.
It also stated that, in response to the expected shortfall for funding in the 2018-19 grant year, the Barry ISD reported freezing discretionary spending in February, as well as reducing the hours of associate teachers. In addition, no further supplies were to be purchased, planned staff professional development was canceled, and the Early Childhood Contact contract would not be renewed, effective June 30.
The fiscal review also stated that, although sufficient funds are available to meet payroll obligations for teaching staff for this school year, no funding remains to conduct recruitment and enrollment activities or to open classrooms and begin school for the 2019-20 school year.
This was confirmed by Barry ISD associate teacher Shay Payne following Tuesday’s board meeting at the ISD administrative office.
“Our assistant’s hours were cut when we came back from spring break,” Payne said. “The GSRP staff received a letter in May about reasonable assurance to return to work [in the fall].
“It felt like it contradicted itself several times throughout the letter, about funding and whether or not we’d be able to return to work. So, I didn’t feel like it was reasonable assurance.”
“I’m not sure that I will have a job, and I’m not comfortable that I do,” Payne added. “But my intention is to come back here.
“I do love the ISD and I love the program that the GSRP stands for.”
During the public comment portion of the board meeting, Jenny Krammin stood and said she is a GSRP teacher.
“However, I'm concerned that the money that's being spent with the GSRP program has forced me to look for other positions because my reasonable assurance for next year isn't guaranteed. It appears my job may be farmed out to another ISD.”
“I am required to be evaluated and to be effective, if I'm ineffective I lose my job,” she added. “As an educator, I strive very hard to be effective. So, it is my recommendation and my verbal evaluation that he [Franklin] has performed ineffectively. Any other person who is involved in the budget has performed ineffectively.
“I recommend that he be held accountable just like I would be,” Krammin said.
Concerns about accountability and financial management dominated the meeting, when board members discussed a projected $700,000 variance in budget projections for the coming year.
Based on that variance outlined in the proposed preliminary budget, the intermediate school district is projecting a 17-percent decrease in its special education fund balance, from 25 percent to 8 percent.
“Not that I’m a math whiz, but … if that carries one more year, it can’t be absorbed,” board Vice President Robert Becker said.
Franklin attributed one reason for the variance between expenditures and revenue to the proposed purchase of a new bus in the coming school year, which will cost the district about $120,000. He pointed out that it's a one-time purchase.
“My question is: Are we missing revenue that is maybe expected to show up,” Becker asked. “If so, that’s great. If not, where are the expenses that we can cut to absorb [the difference]?”
“We budgeted revenue low because there is no state budget,” Franklin replied. “There is nothing close to a state budget this year. I don’t know how much that could factor in there.”
“Right now, we have the budget flat,” chief financial officer Cindy Larson said. “I don’t expect it to stay flat. I expect the revenue to increase, but, at this point, I can’t say that it’s going to increase, so I [kept the budget] flat.”
“There should be a plan,” Becker said. “Even after all the expenses are looked at, and revenue from the state comes in and it's a $500,000 or $400,000 [variance], that’s still a lot of money. Even $400,000 for two or three years is not sustainable.”
“We’re budgeting for the worst case and hoping for best case,” Franklin said.
Privatization of bus service also was discussed. Parents and bus drivers alike attended the meeting to express concerns.
Bus driver Charles Converse said, “I know we’re the bottom line. ... But we [current Barry ISD bus drivers] work with these students every single day. ... We all work so hard.”
“I have a child in the Barry ISD,” parent and GSRP employee Roxanne Artis said. “She rides Robin’s bus. I want it to be known that I highly oppose privatization ... My child is severely autistic, and any kind of changes to her routine is detrimental to her education. These drivers are from our community, not from somewhere else, from our community. They love our kids. If you guys do this privatization, I just can’t even begin to understand why. It doesn’t just affect me, it affects anyone else who has children riding these buses.
“They’ve developed a rapport with us as parents and with the students. I’d give up my job [with GSRP] if my kid gets to keep their driver.”
Becker said the transportation committee does not have a recommendation regarding potential privatization of bus service.
“I'm comfortable with the current state of the ISD,” Franklin said in a later interview. “I'm concerned about threats to programs, but I've seen tough times look worse than where we are now – and they got better.”
“We will continue to work as frugally as possible to find anything to enhance revenue.”