The Saline Area Schools Superintendent Scot Graden has a choice to make.
With two vacancies in its leadership ranks, the school district can follow past protocol and promote from within - and potentially save the district up two $250,000 at the outset of what could be a multi-year budget crisis.
Or, the district can open the process to include outside applicants, expand the talent pool and address the lack of diversity in its staff.
It’s an important moment for the district. And with the Board of Education split on the way forward, they've placed the decision in the hands of their superintendent.
Even before the gaze of the nation focused on Saline after this winter’s racist incidents, the district had begun addressing issues of racism and homophobia in the district. In March of 2019 the district formed a committee to study diversity, equity and inclusion in the district.
These issues came to a head this winter. A video of a racist Snapchat conversation among high school football players alerted the community to the issues faced by students. Those concerns were underlined at a community forum on racism when a local man asked an immigrant why he left Mexico if his family faced so many challenges in America.
In February, a group of students made a series of demands of the board of education. Those demands were aligned with recommendations made later that month in the DEI committee’s report to the board. A key recommendation is the recruitment and retention of a diverse staff.
If local fervor around issues of race and social justice had waned during the COVID-19 crisis, it’s back in full force with daily protests of racism and police brutality after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police. In Saline, perhaps more than 1,000 people attended a protest for Black Lives that closed Michigan Avenue June 5.
The goal of diversity, however, is running into a burgeoning issue could change the tenor of school board meetings for the next year: The school budget.
The COVID-19 pandemic and Gov. Whitmer's lockdowns have smashed into the state budget. Michigan's schools may face a $2.4 billion shortfall in the next 18 months. Without some kind of intervention, School districts could face an 8.4 percent cut in state funding - the largest cut ever seen.
At the June 9 Board of Education meeting, while speaking to the board about the uncertainty of the budget picture, Saline Superintendent Scot Graden asked the board for guidance on how to proceed with the vacant principal positions.
Graden posed the question as budgetary. Posting internally would allow the district to potentially eliminate administrative positions, or eliminate jobs somewhere down the line, and reap savings. Opening the positions to outside applicants would make it difficult, following seniority stipulations in the collective bargaining agreement, to eliminate any existing jobs and save money.
“I’m looking for clear direction from the board as to how you would like us to handle the positions,” Graden said.
At first, the discussion was as it might have been for years at the Saline board table - with trustees speaking about their confidence in the existing talent pool and the need to weather the coming financial storm.
Trustee Dennis Valenti, who serves on the district’s finance committee, pointed to Brad Bezeau and Julie Helber, two principals tapped to become superintendents at other districts in the county.
“It speaks well of the ability of our staff and it shows we have some quality people,” Valenti said. “I prefer to look internally first. I’ll admit, I’m looking at it from a fiscal responsibility point of view. We would have financial savings if we did that and, right now, that seems to be paramount.”
Trustee Tim Austin and Graden spoke about the kinds of budget crunch the district may face. Michigan school districts are generally funded on a per-pupil basis by the state. Austin said there have been reports schools may face a cut of $250-650 per student. Even at the lower level, that would cost the district $1.3 million. Graden said that with estimates for rising costs, even the lower estimate could cause a $2 million shortfall.
Austin put the question to Graden.
“Do you feel we have adequate people who can fill these roles?” Austin asked. “And if so, I think that’s the fiscally responsible thing to do. Even trying to save $1.3 million in the tight budget we have is not going to be easy.”
Trustee Michael McVey has sat in on Michigan Association of School Board webinars and said some school districts are planning for cuts of $400 to $500 per student. McVey said a $250-per-student cut sounds great in comparison. McVey said he was in favor of looking internally for candidates.
“It makes good sense in a lot of ways to have an upward flow from teachers to administration,” McVey said, adding that he’d like to see some scenarios for budgeting.
When Trustee Susan Estep spoke, the issue shifted to the diversity goal.
“We have to post externally,” Estep said.
Estep pointed out that Graden, just a few minutes prior, completed a presentation about the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Coalition.
“Number three of the five objectives was recruitment and hiring. We heard this in the community conversations. What I heard in the small groups and large groups was about hiring practices, and making sure we are providing opportunities and getting people from diverse backgrounds and marginalized communities,” Estep said. “That’s where I stand 100 percent. We have to post externally.”
Board Vice-President Paul Hynek, the longest-serving board member, said the district has almost always filled administrative positions internally and enjoyed success.
Trustee Austin noted that if the district does not post the principal jobs externally, there are other open positions in the district open to all applicants - given the district an opportunity to diversify its staff.
Trustee Valenti said he’d love to open the principal jobs to external candidates - but that he kept coming back to the budget.
“I keep coming back to the finances. We’ve got a $2 million gap here and I’m looking for every penny I can get,” Valenti said, later adding that he obviously would go the external route if there were not qualified internal candidates.
Board President Heidi Pfannes said she thought the district should open the process to external candidates “because it’s the right thing to do.”
“But we need to look at ‘What’s the cost? What’s the skillset? What do they bring to the table,’” Pfannes said. “We’re looking for the best possible person and the most cost-effective solutions.”
Trustee Jennifer Steben said she had faith that there was talent among the current staff to fil the roles, but she supported opening the search to external candidates.
“But I think we would be doing our community a disservice, after what we’ve come through, to not listen to what I heard at the listening sessions, and to not listen to the (DEI) Coalition, and what we’ve been talking about for years in Saline, with everyone talking about ‘nepotism’ ” Steben said. “It doesn’t sit well with me.”
Steben said she wanted to see collaboration with parents as the district identifies the best possible candidates for the positions.
The board was split, though it appeared a majority sided with saving money and going the internal route. Trustees McVey, Valenti, Hynek and Austin supported fiscal savings and an internal search. Trustees Estep, Pfannes and Steben supported an external search and moving toward diversity.
With the split vote, Trustees Austin and Hynek said, it was Graden’s decision.
“At the end of the day, we count on Scot. We hold Scot accountable for the budget. We hold Scot accountable for his team - the teachers and the admin,” Austin said, before reaffirming his position. “Are we willing to hire someone externally and then lay off some of the good teachers or admin that we have right now. Those are the hard questions we have to answer. These are not small numbers. This is not a game. This is important business and at the end of the day, Scot is going to have to own this. At the end of the day, we can come with all the ideas, but Scot’s the one who’s going to have to be accountable for it.”
Estep said the board had a role in the discussion.
“Our job is to approve the budget,”
Steben distanced herself from the idea that hiring external candidates might mean laying off existing staff.
“I would go through that budget and cut things. Other things. I don’t want to say that if we do this, then we have to cut a position in the classroom. I don’t think we’re there yet,” Steben said. “What do you think, Scot?”
Graden said that at some point, the district will be at that point where decisions are made.
“Ideally we would be in a scenario where we are not replacing. But if we’re talking about numbers north of the $250 cut, I don’t see a scenario where we are able to avoid reductions in force that exceed attrition,” Graden said.
Graden said the district hasn’t been eager to talk about scenarios, because the scenarios beyond a $250-per-student cut would cause angst.
“We would have a lot of people on these calls wondering what this means for their families,” Graden said. “I think we’re very cognizant of not trying to create a sense of alarm, but by the same token, we’re very worried about the timing of federal funding and the amount of federal funding.”
Graden said it’s more challenging than some of the toughest budgets he’s faced because of all the uncertainty.
“The structural picture is incredibly bad. There is a likelihood of federal money coming in. The timing of that is not in our favor,” Graden said. “We’re going to have to make decisions, with imperfect information, that’s going to fundamentally impact people’s lives.”
Trustee Valenti said the shortfalls come in at $3-$4 million, layoffs will be unavoidable in a district where salaries account for 85 percent of the budget.
Steben said she was sick of governments taking funding from schools. President Pfannes encouraged citizens to reach out to their Congressperson and ask them to support releasing funds to bolster schools.
In recent years, the district has for the most part chosen to hire from within. Two exceptions were Julie Helber, hired from Milan to be principal at Saline High School, and Michelle Sontag, hired as Heritage principal.