Friday, November 6, 2015

News and Notes: Volume 2, Number 9

One year ago, where did Whitmore Lake Public Schools (WLPS) stand as a district? I, personally, ponder that question a good deal. I think of annexation, dangerously low fund reserves, the corresponding program cuts associated with low fund reserves and a general sense of frustration among parents. I also remember how unique it was for separate school districts to explore partnering to become more efficient and the complete willingness of elected boards to put aside differences and work for the betterment of all kids, no matter where they lived. I remember teachers and administrators finding common ground to preserve our great district. And I remember the citizens who raised everything from funds to awareness of why they continue to believe in WLPS. The representation of our district was exceptional. If Charles Dickens were around, he might have dubbed it, “...the best of times and the worst of times.” Whatever time it was, here is where we stand today:

Financial Stability
Making sure our resources, both human and otherwise, are at appropriate levels to meet the needs of diverse learners is task number one. It has its challenges, too--there is no denying that. Consider the past few years. At the end of 2013, WLPS had reserves of roughly $450,000. Nearly $50,000 of it was spent following a series of cuts. In 2014, approximately $380,000 was spent, along with additional cuts, to keep WLPS out of deficit. This left us with roughly $24,000 in the bank.

These financial decisions were necessary at the time, but it was these circumstances that led to the idea of pursuing annexation with Ann Arbor one year ago. WLPS was going to have to perform deep budget cuts with no reserves from which to draw. Joining with a bigger entity was a practical solution. However, the eventual defeat of the annexation left WLPS alone to solve its fiscal dilemma.

What followed still fills my veins with pride. We came together, and through community engagement, teamwork, a results-oriented Board of Education, and no lack of courage, we took on the challenge of achieving stability and strength. Our staff took immediate concessions to help offset expenditures. This courageous act was not something forced by Michigan’s Department of Education (MDE). Rather, we did this independently.

That was a year ago. Now, our 2015 audit, which was shared with the Board of Education on October 26, demonstrated not only a balanced budget but an increase to the fund balance of more than $200,000.

Additionally, WLPS refinanced its bonds from the 2004 and 2005 construction projects. While this effort doesn’t add to our general fund, the saving to our taxpayers is significant. A reduction in overall taxes exceeding $4 million was realized by this effort alone.
WLPS will continue to be rigorous when managing its financial resources. Our goal is to continue to build fund reserves which exceed the state mandated minimum of 5%. Again, doing this independently without the oversight from MDE is an important demonstration of our resolve. We refuse to be a deficit district.                                   

Increasing Programs and Academic Achievement
What is particularly exceptional about the financial turnaround is that WLPS actually added programming this year, reversing the trend of cutting from years past. Why? Parents were intrigued by the partnership with Ann Arbor in large part because of the potential programming additions that would have been achieved. WLPS administration listened to that feedback and responded. For example, art and guitar classes were added to the elementary school, an online social studies curriculum was developed and implemented in grades 6, 7, and 8, and two AP classes were added at the high school level.

This type of “kids first” approach is often spoken of but seldom realized when times get tough. WLPS could not have had it tougher, yet, no programs were removed from the grasp of our students. And, adding programs...well, that is unheard of.

WLPS is committed to keeping our programs alive, and we want to be mindful not to target the arts when undergoing budget cuts. In fact, adding a little to these programs each year is our plan. WLPS believes in developing its students through a personalized approach. Elimination of programs hurts our overall mission. We do not want to diminish the high graduation rates we have achieved over the past decade and the levels of college readiness these graduates demonstrate through admission to some of the best universities in the country.

In retrospect, it has been a good year. WLPS is looking forward to continuing its path to excellence - we expect to go from surviving to thriving. Keep an eye on your inbox every Friday to hear more about what is happening at WLPS here in News and Notes. 

Jim Vibbart
As many of you know Jim Vibbart, WLPS Board of Education Trustee, recently resigned. With over 12 years on the Board, Vibbart was instrumental in the design of WLPS’ high school building, its LEED certification and the energy savings and innovation that comes with that certification.

Jim’s background in facility management has saved our taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in energy costs. Our biggest building costs less to heat and cool than any other of our other buildings. Why? Because of Jim’s expertise and his willingness to use his knowledge to benefit his community. Having graduated from WLPS, having put his three kids through our schools and now one grandchild, his commitment to kids in this community has been unwavering for years, and we will miss his presence on the board.

WLPS is accepting applications through November 9, and those interested in applying can find the application HERE. The BOE will vote and appoint the new BOE trustee on November 16 who will serve until the November 2016 election.

Vibbart’s term officially ended Tuesday, October 27. Vibbart shared with us some reflections on his time spent on the BOE which are below. Please join me in wishing him the best in his retirement and thanking him for everything he has done for our school, our kids and our community.

Q. How long have you served on the BOE at WLPS?
A. Over 12 years. I was appointed twice, elected three times and served one four-year term that was extended to five years when the board changed to six-year terms.

Q. What lead you to join the BOE in the first place?
A. I was initially appointed and that's how I ended up eventually running for the position. I was interested in serving because of my background in facilities. I thought I might be able to help. 

Q. What have been some of your proudest moments as a BOE member?
A. Without a doubt, every year when I see those excited students graduate, that is the highlight of my year. And then to hear about all the great things they're doing afterwards reinforces the fact that really good stuff happens in the WLPS schools. I was also proud to have been involved in building the futuristic high school that will enable learning for decades to come. 
Q. What has lead to your resignation from the board?  
A. A very busy "retirement" involving a lot of travel with some consulting employment when we're home. If I had known retirement was going to be this much fun, I would have done it years ago! 
Q. What are your plans in the near future?
A. My wife and I just got back from a 24-day trip to East Tennessee where we immersed ourselves in some beautiful scenery and great eating! We will be returning to Florida for warm weather this winter. We have booked two cruises; one is a Caribbean cruise with our daughter, Julie; and the other is a river cruise in Europe next summer. We're looking forward to those!

Q. What are your hopes for the future of WLPS?
A. Obviously, the present and future success of our students is the highest priority. To accomplish that, we need great teachers and administrators. We also need money, and it's going to take a prolonged focus on the financial situation to be where we want to be. But I am confident Tom and his team, along with the board, have the desire to make it happen.

Q. What words of wisdom/encouragement/parting words do you have for the remaining board members?
A. Focus on supporting the superintendent and build your fund balance to the proper level. And keep putting our students first!

Q. What advice would you give to parents and community members who are looking for ways to support WLPS?
A. There are many, many ways those in the community can support the schools by volunteering time or contributing to various fund-raising efforts. I know the superintendent wants to raise some money for new computers and my wife, Carol, and I kicked off the drive during my last board meeting. I would encourage anyone in the community who loves our school district like we do to step up and make a contribution. Our schools could really use your help.

Q. What makes WLPS such a special place, in your opinion?  
A. We are a close-knit community brought closer together by our schools. This community knows our kids need a great education to succeed in life, and the community has always supported the schools. Whitmore Lake is a great place to call home!

Q. Anything else you would like to share?  
A. My sisters and I went to Whitmore Lake from kindergarten through grade 12. Our two sons and our daughter did the same thing. Our daughter-in-law is a Whitmore Lake grad. As you can see, we have spent a lot of time in the schools. It was my pleasure to give a little back, and I'll be checking in from time to time to help out.

Veterans Day
Next Wednesday, November 11, is Veterans Day. One of our teachers, Cathy Schneider, whose son served in Afghanistan in the Marines, is coordinating a Jeans for Troops day on Wednesday where staff who donate $5 get to wear jeans to work. The money collected is donated to the GI Go Fund, a nonprofit that provides assistance to all military veterans, with a focus on veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, by helping them find employment, access to housing and secure their educational and health benefits ( Students looking to recognize Veterans Day are encouraged to wear red, white and blue on Wednesday.

Watch our Facebook page next week, too. We will be posting special profiles on WLHS graduates who have served our country. It is an honor to recognize these outstanding women and men and their service to our country.

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