This week a small school district in southwest Michigan laid off all but four employees because of major budget problems. 122 students at Galien Township Schools will have to enroll at new schools next semester. Included in the layoffs were 10 teachers, 10 support staff, 4 bus drivers, and 2 kitchen workers. The only ones who remain are the superintendent, the business manager, a secretary and a custodian.
The Galien district consists mostly of farmland 3 miles away from the Michigan-Indiana border in Berrien County. The number of students there has gone down for several years. The school board closed the high school in 2004. Those students transferred to other districts. In January, kindergarteners through eighth graders will do the same.
“I’m sad for this community,” Superintendet Tim Allard said, “I’m sad for these employees who have been here so much longer than I have." Allard just came on as the district’s superintendent in September.
Declining student enrollment the big issue
Allard says declining student enrollment is the district’s biggest budget problem. “I don’t know if there’s any great fix for it but small school districts with declining enrollment are going to continue to struggle given the way that the financial situation works for funding schools,” Allard said. The fewer students a district has, the less money it gets from the state.
The district owes the state $545,000 after an audit last year showed the number of students enrolled was inflated. The district is appealing that. But Allard says some records that may account for the students are missing. Because of the audit, Allard says the state held paying the district in August. So they borrowed money to operate.
Galien Schools already spent down its entire savings account. That may have given them a little cushion when they lost 20 students this fall.
Allard says they’ve also suffered a loss of students who opt to go to other districts through the school of choice program; particularly since the high school closed.
Allard hopes Galien will be able to reopen in the fall. But he admits it’ll be tough to do that.
The state says several other rural school districts (White Pine, Free Soil, Marenisco, and Bloomfield Township #7, for example) have gone through similar a process in Michigan in the last few years.