The good news and bad news of casino revenue for Wayland schools

mister journalism2By Jeff Salisbury

After the successful passage of Proposal A in 1994, that forever altered how Michigan public school districts generate operational funds, I can recall former Wayland superintendent Bob Brenner saying, “Mr. Salisbury, the good news is, ‘no more local operational millage elections’… and the bad news is, ‘no more local operational millage elections.’”

Fast forward almost 20 years and the same might be said about the Gun Lake Casino “in lieu of taxes” revenue-sharing checks the Wayland Union School District receives about every six months.

In fact I think I can recall at the time former trustee Don Borgic making a similar wry comment, to the same effect that… the good news is, the district is going to be receiving lots of money from the new Casino each year… and the bad news… well, you get the idea.

What both Bob and Don were saying was that while there were certainly intended consequences to both Proposal A and the local casino compact there are unintended consequences as well. When it comes to the Casino revenue which amounts to somewhere around $1.5-1.6 million per year, the unintended consequences include disagreements over how best to spend the money and on what sorts of programs and services.

Board members now seem to be in agreement that what’s been missing from the discussions the past four years is an overall philosophy of how best to make use of the money.

The first conversations, back four years ago, centered on the possibility of developing a scholarship program of some kind for graduates. The board participated in video-conference with its counterparts on the New Buffalo (MI) school board and listened to their presentation outlining its scholarship program. The scholarship was (still is I think) worth $25,000 at $5000 per year for a maximum of 5 years.

After we closed the conference call the general consensus seemed to be that for our district the scholarship plan would not be a good fit. New Buffalo graduating classes are very small (think- Martin Public Schools) and so for them, the superintendent simply reviewed the applications and brought recommendations to the board for final approval. Based on the number of students we graduate, that simply would require more in the way of logistics as well as setting aside an unknown amount of money to fund the program over future years, similar to the Kalamazoo Promise.

So the Wayland board members  continued to brainstorm ideas around the table. At the time and based on no definitive suggestions or restrictions being placed on the district by the Gun Lake tribal leaders, there were numerous compelling arguments made for reducing or eliminating pay-to-play athletics, reducing or eliminating individual or family admission to school events, cutting the cost of community education, student and adult enrichment courses and reducing or eliminating a variety of other fee-based programs currently being offered by the district.

The board directed the superintendent to take that information and conduct some informal polling of key stakeholders.

This “committee” was loosely organized, had no regular meetings, agendas or minutes, but functioned in an ad hoc format under the direction of the superintendent in order that he could field ideas from a cross-section of district residents and community leaders as to how to make the best use of the Casino revenue. In some case the superintendent met with individuals one-on-one or in groups of 2-3 in person, or via email or phone calls or gathered opinions and views from community members at his frequent “coffees” and/or “Soup with the Supe” events.

In the intervening years, the School Board  approved a wide variety of program, services, equipment and supply purchases — but in my view continued to struggle with a consistent set of guidelines to self-monitor the effectiveness of the expenditures.

Soon it was clear that every single penny of Casino revenue was being used, and even when payments did not remain constant or exceed the previous semi-annual payment, fund equity was used to ensure the intent of Casino expenditure “plan” was carried out.

As it stands, the district – arguably the “wealthiest” in Allegan County faces declining state revenues, a dip in Casino revenue and despite using more and more of its fund equity faced personnel layoffs or work assignment reductions and program and services cuts.

However one looks at this situation – from inside or outside – a district that spends every penny of state revenue and every penny of Casino revenue and struggles to balance its budget is not following sound financial practices.

More recently, administrators have proposed using loans to continue to offer current programs or even expand services. Some administrative proposals have been successful while others are pending … hundreds of thousands of dollars borrowed annually to sustain cash flow from July 1 to October 1… hundreds of thousands of dollars borrowed (over the course of 3-years) to purchase iPads… millions of dollars borrowed for 10 years (2015-2025) to add a science wing to the high school… and just this year, a plan to borrow for another three years, hundreds of thousands more to add and upgrade additional iPads… and a plan to borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars in multiple 3-year cycles to upgrade the bus fleet stretching over the next 12 years and repetitively beyond.

Now, I’ve begun to hear and read what I believe are some positive comments by certain board members including the new president that what’s REALLY needed is an “overall philosophy” that would guide the board moving forward.

I agree.

In fact it was my hope back in 2013 when as board president I encouraged trustees to study and develop a long-term strategic plan (with outside assistance) for the district in the same way cities and townships and other municipalities develop Master Plans to guide short-term and long-term decision-making.

But first I believe the board needs to come recognize that the district is “in the business of providing educational services” and that all planning, decision-making and thus spending fall into two categories of educational services – Essential Educational Services and Non-Essential Services.

Essential Educational Services are those grade and age-appropriate classroom instructional programs designed to insure that all students from K to 12 have an equitable opportunity to earn a high school diploma. That is after all the basic mission or “business” of a public school district – to deliver essential educational services.

Non-Essential Educational Services are everything else… athletics, extra-curricular and even some co-curricular activities, recreation programs, student and adult enrichment courses… would be some examples.

In my view, Casino revenue should only be spent on “non-essential educational services” – period.

Of course some school districts will have slightly different lists of “essential” services… for example… in Grand Rapids, Wyoming, Godfrey-Lee or Godwin Heights, busing would probably NOT be an essential service. But, in Wayland – with nearly 100 square miles, safely transporting students to and from school IS an essential service.

Once the School Board determines (with input from all pertinent stakeholders) a list of Non-Essential Educational Services – it can then develop a strategic plan for how best to fund those services and from what revenue sources.

Make no mistake, the WUS Board of Education is at a crucial financial juncture – the decisions it makes must be fiscally sound and grounded in a philosophy that the public understands and agrees is the best path to follow moving forward. A wrong choice, or series of choices, could send the district down a path to fiscal ruin.

I’ll have more to say about what I view as the best approach to budgets, spending and casino revenue in future columns, but in the meantime, let your voice be heard at an upcoming board meeting. Let the Board know you agree – that the Board should develop a clear and easy to explain philosophy which acts as the guiding principles for how best to use Casino revenue moving forward.

Wayland Union Schools – Board of Education Meetings & Workshops

• February 23, 2015 Administration Building, 850 E. Superior, Wayland – 5:30 p.m.
March 9, 2015 Pine Street Elementary, 201 Pine Street, Wayland – 7:00 p.m

• March 16, 2015 6:00 p.m. Administration Building, 850 E. Superior, Wayland – 6:00 p.m

• March 23, 2015 Administration Building, 850 E. Superior, Wayland – 6:00 p.m
• April 20, 2015 Wayland Union Middle School, 701 Wildcat Drive, Wayland – 7:00 p.m
• May 18, 2015 Wayland Union Middle School, 701 Wildcat Drive, Wayland – 7:00 p.m
• June 8, 2015 Wayland Union Middle School, 701 Wildcat Drive, Wayland – 7:00 p.m
• July 13, 2015 Administration Building, 850 E. Superior, Wayland – 7:00 p.m
• June 22, 2015 Administration Building, 850 E. Superior, Wayland – 7:00 p.m


• Nancy Thelen, President, Email:  Phone: 616-877-3098

• Tom Salingue, Vice-President, Email: Phone: 269-792-2061

• Toni Ordway, Treasurer, Email: Phone: 269-910-3297

• Theresa Dobry, Secretary, Email:  Phone: 616-681-2119

• Pete Zondervan, Trustee, Email: Phone: 616-450-1468

• Janel Hott, Trustee, Email: Phone: (h) 269-792-0297  (c) 269-250-0286

• Gary Wood, Trustee, Email: Phone: 616-681-2120

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