Traverse City News and Events

TCAPS Cuts Great Start Funding, Ratifies Superintendent Contract

By Beth Milligan | June 9, 2020

Traverse City Area Public Schools board trustees voted 6-1 Monday to cut the district’s funding for the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) – leaving it up to other local providers to step up and administer the free preschool program for four-year-olds. The move is one of several difficult budget decisions facing the district due to anticipated state funding cuts from the coronavirus pandemic, according to Interim Superintendent Jim Pavelka – with TCAPS facing a potential $4.1 million shortfall in its upcoming 2020-21 budget.

TCAPS staff told trustees that GSRP has been operating at a deficit for several years, with the program expected to cost the district $125,000 in 2020-21. While the program is heavily subsidized by state grant funding through the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District (TBAISD), TCAPS acts as a subcontractor and still pays for teacher and staff costs. A total of seven teachers and 14 aides work in GSRP, with 112 students enrolled in the program this year.

There are seven GSRP programs operating at six TCAPs schools, including two at Blair Elementary School and one each at Central Grade School, Courtade Elementary School, Long Lake Elementary School, Silver Lake Elementary School, and Traverse Heights Elementary School. Children – who attend school four full days a week Monday-Thursday – are typically eligible for the program because of either low income levels or high risk factors. TCAPS Associate Superintendent of Student Services Jame McCall said cutting funding to GSRP was purely a financial decision, with the program costing approximately $7,250 per pupil to operate.

“We highly value early childhood education,” she said. “It is not a matter of not valuing the program.”

Board trustees approved laying off five of the seven GSRP teachers, a move staff said would allow those employees to begin immediately collecting unemployment while TCAPS tries to find another place for them in the district. Two of the teachers have already been moved into other teaching positions. TCAPS Executive Director of Human Resources & Labor Relations Dr. Cindy Berck tells The Ticker she is “cautiously optimistic” the other five teachers will also be placed in positions by September 1. “The fourteen aides are being considered for other support staff positions in the buildings they currently serve,” she says.

Several parents pleaded during public comment at Monday’s board meeting for TCAPS to keep its funding intact for GSRP, highlighting its importance in preparing children academically and socially for kindergarten. Pavelka – who has a background in early childhood education – also praised the program and said the decision to recommend cutting funding was “maybe one of the toughest decisions” of his career. Board members who voted for the proposal also expressed their reticence while doing so, including Treasurer Matt Anderson, who said he worried about eliminating another option for young childcare in the region. “I'm real torn about it,” he said. Trustee Erica Moon Mohr – the sole ‘no’ vote against the proposal – blasted the decision to cut GSRP funding. “I think this would be a huge mistake,” she said. “These are our most fragile students.”

But most board members were swayed by staff’s emphasis on the ability for the program to continue under other local subcontractors. Munson Medical Center and a handful of other private providers already bid on some of the preschool student “slots” available through TBAISD; staff said they hoped to see one or more of those organizations step up and take over TCAPS’ student slots. “What we really are hoping for is to partner with another agency in our community to be able to run these programs within our buildings,” said McCall. “That's going to be one of our goals.” Pavelka said TCAPS could provide classroom space, transportation, and food service for another contractor interested in administering GSRP programs, but said the district could no longer keep bleeding money on staff costs. “This isn’t the only difficult decision that’s going to have to be made in the next few months,” he cautioned trustees.

That point was reiterated during a presentation Monday by Associate Superintendent of Finance & Operations Christine Thomas-Hill, who is helping prepare TCAPS’ 2020-21 budget (the district’s fiscal year runs July 1-June 30). The district is anticipating state funding cuts of an estimated $500 per pupil due to the coronavirus pandemic, though worst-case scenarios put that figure as high as $650 per pupil. Even at $500 per pupil, the district is anticipating an estimated budget shortfall of over $4.1 million next year. The loss would be covered by the district’s fund balance, but would nearly halve the fund balance in the process – dropping it from $8.9 million to $4.7 million. That would leave TCAPS with a fund balance of under five percent – normally a low enough level to be considered fiscal distress and require additional reporting to the state. However, Thomas-Hill said many school districts in Michigan will be in the same position as TCAPS, with the state likely to relax its fund balance requirements during the pandemic.

Also at Monday’s meeting…
TCAPS trustees ratified a contract with new incoming superintendent Dr. John VanWagoner, who was unanimously selected by the board in May to take over the district’s top leadership position. Under the contract terms, VanWagoner – who is leaving his position as superintendent of Alpena Public Schools to come to Traverse City – will earn an annual base salary of $197,500 for his first three years, or the length of the contract. VanWagoner will also earn additional benefits such as health insurance, retirement benefits, and paid vacation and sick time, as well as a 1.0 percent tax-sheltered annuity package. That package is in lieu of a number of benefits bestowed to past superintendents, such as moving and cell phone costs. The agreement calls for VanWagoner to receive an annual performance evaluation each December. VanWagoner, who has already agreed to the contract terms, is set to start in his new position on July 15.

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