By Jim Newell
From closing an elementary and redistricting students, to beginning the first round of sinking fund projects last summer and managing the district’s finances and assets, the Lake Orion Community Schools Board of Education and executive administrators have had quite a few issues to confront while trying to make the transition into the 2017-18 school year as easy as possible for students and staff.
Lake Orion Community Schools Superintendent Marion Ginopolis recently sat down with The Lake Orion Review to discuss an overview of the ongoing and upcoming issues facing the school district in 2018.
Transitioning after redistricting
Last summer, the school district closed Pine Tree Elementary and re-drew elementary school boundaries to redistrict the students amongst the remaining six schools: Blanche Sims, Carpenter, Orion Oaks, Paint Creek, Stadium and Webber.
With any school closure and redistricting, there is always the concern of how students will adjust, but Ginopolis said she’s pleased with how the transition has gone – and literally knocked on wood.
“We’ve had a really good beginning to the school year. My big worry over the summer was, with all the changes we made last year that would go into effect in September, how would that transition be and I’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback from parents and kids that it really went very smoothly. And staff, too,” she said.
“Everybody was really impacted by the transition, the closure of Pine Tree and the elimination of the focus school concept and redrawing the boundaries. Really, it’s gone very, very well and people have acclimated to the changes and we just move on. So, I’m very pleased.”
One day last year after the announcement that some elementary students would be going to a new school, Ginopolis was at Stadium Elementary when a third-grader came up to her and asked, “Are you the lady that’s making us move to a new school?”
“Well, yes, that’s a decision the district is making,” she told the boy. “And then he said: ‘I’m so excited because I’m going to Orion Oaks and they have lockers and we don’t have lockers at Stadium.’”
Ginopolis’s point: kids adapt. It’s often harder on the parents.
Budget and enrollment
Lake Orion Community Schools received an “unmodified opinion” on its annual audit report, the highest form assurance it could receive, from its auditors during the school board meeting Nov. 29. (See: The Lake Orion Review, Dec. 6, 2017).
Part of the district’s goal in the restructuring process was to cut costs and increase its fund balance to about 10 percent of the annual operating budget.
“We said we’re tightening up our belt, that we could not continue to operate the way we were operating. So, having an increase in our fund equity last year – and then we anticipate another one for this school year – so we will build it back up. The board, their policy is to maintain it at 10 percent, or at least have a plan in place where it will be 10 percent, so that’s our goal,” Ginopolis said.
The General Fund’s beginning fund balance has been adjusted upward reflecting the actual audited ending fund balance at June 30, 2017. The budgeted ending fund balance of the General Fund is now at 9.4 percent of the Fiscal Year 2017-18 budgeted expenditures and transfers, according to the district’s budget amendment #1 FY 2017-18 that became effective Jan. 24.
The total amendment #1 ending fund balance is budgeted at $7,704,538, up from $7,185,752 from the adopted budget.
“We’re staying within budget. Enrollment is still not increasing to any great extent. We keep losing a hundred kids here, a hundred kids there. We’ll see what happens,” Ginopolis said. “Next year’s going to be tough because the current 11th grade is the largest class we’ve got. So, when they graduate – this year’s class is large, too – it’s going to be a big hit.”
The current 11th grade class is 609 students; 12th grade is 532 students.
“That’s going to be a big hit to the budget,” she said, saying the district expects possibly 450 new students next year.
To help with enrollment numbers, the board also voted to allow schools of choice students – those students who live outside the district boundaries – to apply to attend Lake Orion schools. The board capped SOC enrollment at 10 percent of any grade level where there was room for out-of-district students.
Besides aging out – graduating more students than are enrolling in the district – another factor affecting enrollment is the cost of housing development in Orion Township. Most new homes cost more than $400,000.
For instance, the proposed Gregory Meadows subdivision – which could have up to 103 new homes – has a minimum of 2,200 square feet for first floor master residences, and 2,600 sq. ft. for two-story homes. Prices are expected to start in the mid-$400,000 range.
“I don’t know of many young couples with young children who can afford a home in that range,” Ginopolis said.
Still, the district is committed to increasing its fund balance, maintaining curriculum programming and keep a balanced budget.
“Then people say things like, ‘Well, you can cut teachers. You don’t need as many teachers.’ But it doesn’t shake out like that. It’s not like you lose only fifth graders so you can cut a fifth-grade (class). They’re spread out among all the schools. Sometimes people have a hard time understanding that,” Ginopolis said.
After closing Pine Tree Elementary, the school board made a concerted effort to find some way to repurpose the building – one that would bring income into the district.
The district is working with Oakland Intermediate School District to use the lower level of Pine Tree as a Separate Center Program for All, operating in conjunction with the OISD as a center-based special education facility for ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) elementary and middle school students in northern Oakland County.
The top level of Pine Tree will house the Lake Orion Phases Program, currently at the CERC facility. Pine Tree will be renamed Pine Tree Center.
Ginopolis said Lake Orion plans to open the new center in the fall.
“We’ve submitted our budget to the county (OISD) for approval of the all of the startup costs. We’re in the process right now of getting it ready and that’s moving along real nicely,” Ginopolis said. “Once we have those two things in place we will start letting other districts know about sending children here. The main thing was getting the facility in a condition that meets the standard that we need to have for that particular program.”
Ginopolis said the county is on board with offering the program at Pine Tree and will review the budget Lake Orion submitted. But Ginopolis doesn’t anticipate any major changes, only minor detail adjustments.
“They’re really enthused about having a center-based program up here in the northern part of the county because the only one now is in Hazel Park. So, sending children from this area down to Hazel Park, it’s tough. It’s tough on all kids, but for students who have special needs it’s even more difficult,” she said.
“The board is looking at the possibility of a bond for next November so that we can get our facilities to where they really need to be.”
The school board meet with Brad Hemmes, Vice President of GMB Architecture + Engineering, who presented information to the board on the company and their experience working with school districts in October.
Ginopolis said a bond proposal would be “strictly for facilities.”
“You can’t use it for general operating, it’s strictly for facilities. Unfortunately, we were not successful in the past two bonds. But we’re working right now with an architect to decide what specifically we want to do.”
The bond proposal the district is exploring would extend a current bond and not create a new bond.
“The beauty of this one will be that it will not require an increase in the tax levy, it would stay the same. There’s no increase in the rate (for taxpayers). The issue for me is going to be making sure people understand what can be done with a bond and what’s being done with the sinking fund so that people don’t say, ‘Wait a minute, we just passed the sinking fund, now you’re asking us to pass a bond?’
“And they’re really very different pools of money that will be for different kinds of things,” Ginopolis said. “We’re really in the very preliminary stages. The board hasn’t even definitely passed a resolution or anything. We’re just talking about it.
“What do they see as the challenges in the district? What sets Lake Orion apart from other districts? These are the kinds of questions they’re asking,” Ginopolis said.
“The big issue is programs right now. I’m really excited about the whole concept of the Science Plus program that we’re looking at,” Ginopolis said. “This is one of the things we told the community and our families that we would look at once we had done our restructuring. Now, we’re really able to expand the kinds of things we’re doing for kids academically.
“The Science Plus program is going to be a really big hit because it’s going to add coaches at the lower levels in the area of science. The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields will be expanded, so we’re very excited about that.”
The Science Plus program will be incorporated into the school curriculum at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year.
The district owns 20 acres of land at the corner of Adams and Clarkston roads in Oakland Township.
“The RFP (request for proposal) is out for the Clarkston Road property and we’ll be receiving bids on that and determining what those are, whatever the price is. That’s the only asset right now that the board is looking at selling.”
Other district assets are “not on the table right now” as the district focuses on one asset/property at a time.
The school district also owns vacant land at Webber Elementary behind Moose Tree, vacant land north of Orion Oaks Elementary on Joslyn Road and the Administration Building on Lapeer Street, which had previously been proposed for sale or lease.