By NYSSA RABINOWITZ
Capital News Service
LANSING – School districts are feeling the pinch of the long-running budget crisis, including decisions to cut teaching positions.
Meanwhile, the state’s teacher education programs continue to pump out more graduates, said Frank Ciloski, an education consultant for the Michigan Education Association (MEA) in East Lansing, the state’s largest union of school employees.
But if jobs are becoming harder to find, why do universities keep training teachers?
“I think the primary reason is that the universities allow individuals to enroll in the programs because they feel that it is not their responsibility to provide that kind of guidance,” Ciloski said.
In Blissfield, nearly 10 percent of its school budget has been cut, according to the superintendent.
“We can’t sustain that forever,” said Scott Moellenberndt. “Most districts have had to look at restructuring existing staff.
“We’re fortunate in that our enrollment has remained somewhat flat. Virtually every aspect has remained consistent from previous years.”
But many districts haven’t been so lucky.
Some have responded to budget woes by laying off teachers, reducing extracurricular activities and increasing class sizes, Ciloski said.
“Obviously we don’t like that,” Ciloski said. “It doesn’t help our members if they are teaching 30 or 40 kids” and can’t give students the attention they need.
“The economics in Michigan are such that everybody is doing the best they can with a limited amount of money,” he added. “It’s just a reality we have to deal with.”
Blissfield tried to cut costs by restructuring staff with the least possible impact in the classrooms, Moellenberndt said. Cuts focused on food service, custodial staff, bus drivers and administrative support rather than teacher layoffs.
“The reason that we’re in business is teaching and learning,” Moellenberndt said. “We’re committed to doing the best for our kids.”
The district’s only change in teaching was that an art teacher is now teaching fourth grade, he said. Art instruction is now provided by the elementary teachers rather than a separate specialist. That’s been a relatively minor revision, he said.
Zeeland Public Schools looked at building renovations and energy-saving practices to save money year after year, according to Superintendant Gary Feenstra.
“Turning lights out was a big one,” Feenstra said. Schools also removed lights and appliances that weren’t needed in classrooms and monitored thermostats so buildings weren’t being heated or cooled when not in use.
The district saved about $200,000 with energy cutbacks in one year, Feenstra said.
Unlike Blissfield, whose enrollment has been holding steady, Zeeland has gained about 130 students this year, Feenstra said.
“We are a family-oriented district,” Feenstra said. “It’s our total staff working together for excellence in education, and we have a reputation in the area for that.”
Yet even as a growing district, cuts have had to be made, Feenstra said.
“We’ve been looking at every aspect of our district, saying what can we do differently that will be a sustainable reduction in cost that will allow us to provide quality education,” he said. “We’ve cut back in staff, but mostly we don’t add staff when we don’t need to.
“The core classrooms are No. 1,” he added. “We’re going to preserve our core classrooms and curriculum for kids.”
Feenstra said elementary schools added staff to handle new students, but some high school class sections and electives were cut based on sign-up.
It’s easier to look at your high school and cut back a section,” Feenstra said. “A first-grade classroom needs a teacher all day. It’s not in sections.”
Despite a bleak job market for teachers, the numbers of students with degrees in education are staying steady, at least at Grand Valley State University, according to Keith Vree, associate director of undergraduate studies for the College of Education.
“We’ve seen a slight decline but not a significant decline,” Vree said. Grand Valley State has one of the best teacher preparation programs in the state, which is a draw for students, he added.
But even with layoffs, graduates are finding jobs, Vree said.
Early retirements across the state have created job opportunities, especially last year when many teachers took retirement incentives, Vree said. The college continues to have job fairs that include in-state and out-of-state districts. Often the recruiters hire students on the spot, he added.
However, the MEA’s Ciloski said, “the reality is that there aren’t that many positions out there as available teachers.” This is especially true for students with degrees in elementary education, which has a surplus of teachers compared to openings across the nation, he said.
“There are almost always too many social studies and English teachers” as well, he added. “People like the subject and believe that they are going to be employed,” but that won’t always happen.
Blissfield’s Moellenberndt said the biggest challenge for districts will be determining what to cut next year if more funding doesn’t come through.
Blissfield would look at transportation and athletics in an effort to preserve the classroom experience, he said.
“We’ve been able to provide continued grade-level student-teacher ratios as we have in previous years,” he said. “If we have to make additional cuts for 2012, I don’t know if we’ll be so fortunate.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.