Declining number of students forces Utica district cuts

Nicquel Terry
The Detroit News

Declining enrollment is forcing Michigan’s second-largest school district to make drastic changes to its staffing levels and student programming to stay afloat.

Utica Community Schools laid off 35 full-time teachers last month to balance a $277.6 million budget and offset the district’s dwindling enrollment.

To help balance the budget, it transferred $10.5 million from a fund equity to plug a $19.3 million deficit this year, school officials say. And it made cuts to technology and other areas to make up the remaining debt.

“This is a necessary step in getting our expenditures and revenue in line, but it is something that we don’t take lightly,” Carol Klenow, the school board president, said in a statement.

School officials also announced the restructuring of the elementary English Language program, which would save the district $2 million.

The Board of Education called the teacher layoffs necessary to implement enrollment-based staff reductions.

Utica projects enrollment for 2016-17 to be 27,683, a decline of 440 students. The district lost 200 students last year and is projected to lose another 1,600 in the next five years, according to Stephanie Eagen, an assistant superintendent.

School officials say falling birth rates in Macomb County and Michigan are to blame.

The 35 teacher layoffs will save Utica $2.6 million in the coming school year, school officials say.

And while U.S. Census Bureau data shows more families are moving to Macomb County, the number of school age children living in the Utica Community Schools district is expected to steadily decline in the next 25 years, according to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.

SEMCOG estimates a 4.2 percent drop in the number of children ages 5-17 between 2010-40.

The district has 36 schools, 1,400 teachers and serves families in several communities including Utica and Sterling Heights and Shelby, Washington and Macomb townships.

Bill DiSessa, a spokesman for the Department of Education, said school districts across the state have seen their enrollment numbers plummet. In some cases, families leave communities in droves because of a lack of jobs, he said.

Since Michigan funds schools on a per-student basis, districts are forced to operate with less money. So they cut programs, lay off employees and consolidate services among other strategies, DiSessa said.

Under the English Language program redesign, Utica will transition to a model where students are not pulled out of primary instruction classes for the English Language curriculum. They will receive their English Language training in an integrated setting with general education students.

English Language teachers will become primary elementary instruction teachers or provide classroom support to students who don’t speak English.

Robert Monroe, an assistant superintendent, said he expects the district to gradually switch to this model.

“The benefits are that they can access the core curriculum all day long and not be pulled out of that environment,” Monroe said.

The plan has drawn criticism from the school community with some saying non-English speaking students will be deprived of one-on-one teaching and mainstream students will have to learn at a slower pace.

“In practice, it’s a little bit scary if you have your child in a classroom where half the students are non-English speaking,” said Diana Lulgjuraj, a former English Language teacher for Utica.

Lulgjuraj said she was also surprised the district would make cuts to the program when the English Language student population is growing.

There are more than 3,000 English Language students in the district, compared to 800 five years ago, Monroe said.

Monroe said the English Language population is exceeding the district’s ability to continue offering pull out instruction.

Renee Singer, who has two children at the Morgan Elementary School, said she is concerned the English Language teachers won’t be prepared for general education classrooms.

Singer’s third-grade son struggles with reading comprehension and she said she doesn’t know if he will get the necessary attention in a class with non-English speaking students.

“There’s been so many changes to the public school curriculum that they (EL teachers) have been kind of taken away from that everyday learning,” Singer said. “My child could potentially suffer because these teachers specialize in one specific area.”