Detroit school budget avoids layoffs, pay cuts

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

The Detroit school board approved a $763 million budget for the coming academic year on Tuesday with no layoffs, salary reductions or program cuts, despite a projected $43 million loss in state funding due to the economic impact of COVID-19.

That's because Detroit Public Schools Community District is balancing its 2020-21 budget using $43 million in CARES Act money it received from the federal government and budget cuts that stay out of the classroom and away from teacher salaries. 

Nikolai Vitti, Superintendent, Detroit Public Schools Community District, announces an expanded arts and music partnership on Tuesday, February 11, 2020 with 24 arts organizations to develop a Pathways Initiative.

"We are protecting jobs, we are protecting salaries and wages and we are protecting student programming," DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said during the district's virtual budget hearing.

According to budget documents, DPSCD faces a $700 per student cut in the 2019-20 budget — or $35.2 million — and a $814 per student cut — or $41 million — in the 2020-21 budget due to lower than expected tax revenues from the pandemic.

The district is also projecting a 5% reduction in 2021 property tax collections due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but still expects to pay $64 million in debt obligations it has for 2020-21, Vitti said.

Cost-cutting in the budget will come from no recurring salary increases, a 10% reduction in central office discretionary spending, reductions for district office funding for in-person training, staff travel, conferences, and student field trips and reducing central office positions.

The district, which educates about 51,000 students, is required to adopt a budget by June 30, but can amend its budget throughout the year, Vitti said.

If the state cuts go beyond the current projected rate of 10% or $43 million, Vitti said the district will have to consider furloughs, wage reductions and other measures.

The district received $85 million in CARES Act money. Vitti said the remaining $42 million is reserved for the 2021-22 school year.

The district can only use CARES Act money to buy personal protective equipment, expand student technology, expand remote learning, fund wrap-around services and fund more literacy and math teachers to reduce class sizes.

Vitti said the district is looking to expand the number of contracted nurses it has using CARES money. He hopes to place a contracted nurse at every school.

The budget also includes an increase in teacher salaries. In May the district announced new teachers will earn up to $51,071 starting in the 2020-21 academic year, making starting teacher pay the highest in Metro Detroit.

It's a jump from the current salary, which pays first-year teachers around $38,000 with a $1,000 increase each following year, maxing out at 15 years. The move is expected to help fill positions and retain instructors.

Students in Detroit and across the state have been out of school buildings since mid-March, forced into a crash course in online learning at home because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Educators across the state are starting to pitch school reopening plans and hold budget hearings for the 2020-21 school year without knowing whether the pandemic will be winding down or flaring up.

Earlier this month, Vitti announced a draft plan for reopening school this fall in his district.

Classes would be limited to 20 students in one room at a time, auditoriums and cafeterias would be repurposed as classrooms to allow for maximum social distancing and high school students would attend in-person class on alternating weeks.

The plan calls for daily screenings of students for COVID-19 symptoms, mandated testing for all staff from within two weeks of reporting to work and a shortened school day — six hours instead of the traditional seven to 7.5 hours.

All Michigan school districts are grappling with budget decisions as they collectively face an estimated $2.39 billion revenue drop in the current and next year's state school budget. That would amount to a cut of about $685 for every student in the state.

Michigan educators have said they need federal and state support to continue to pay staff, provide services to students such as meals, and provide extensive safety measures for when schools reopen.

Amid calls by students and community members to defund the school district police department, board president Iris Taylor announced Tuesday during the regular board meeting she was appointing an ad hoc task force to assess the “state of safety” in the district.

Taylor said the task force will have two charges: to perform a current assessment of safety in the district “as perceived by those who are engaged in the district” and to make recommendations to the board based on data that is collected in the assessment.

Taylor appointed board members Misha Stallworth and Angelique Peterson-Mayberry to be on the task force and asked Vitti to appoint its remaining members who are representative of the district and community.