The Saline Board of Education voted to make Tim Austin its president last week. Swinging the gavel has become a family tradition.
After moving the family to Saline and opening Austin Orchards on Saline-Milan Road in 1919, William Austin became board president. His son, Hugh, also served as president of the board.
Tim Austin's grandfather and great-grandfather are both named on plaques at current and former Saline schools. William is named on a plaque at the old Union School. Hugh is named at what's now Saline Middle School.
"I don't intend on having my name on a plaque in a new school," Tim Austin jokes.
The family tradition matters to the Austin family, but it's not why Austin sought office and accepted the board presidency.
"It's something that my father thinks is neat. My aunt (Kay Guenther) used to work for (former SHS principal) Paul Thibault, and she thinks it's great," Austin said. "But growing up, it wasn't something I ever thought about. I probably didn't even know my grandfather was on the board. It's not something that drove me to run for office."
Perhaps the reasons why the Austins sought office are similar.
"I grew up here. I graduated from Saline High School and I want to give something back," Austin said.
Austin is co-owner of A&H Lawn Service. He and high-school buddy Brandon Hertel started the business one summer after high school.
"We worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken and we were looking for something to do. The owner of the restaurant gave us his lawnmower and we started the business," Austin said.
They began with five customers.
"I remember that first day. We spent 12 hours working to finish that up. It was miserable. It was hard work," Austin remembers.
It was a job they hoped would pay for college. Austin aspired to be an architect. But as he worked his way through school and the business grew, he faced a choice.
"I could continue on in school and pile up debt, or I could pour all my effort into growing the business,” Austin said.
Austin chose his to grow the business. Today, A&H services about 70 commercial customers. The company employs 36 people in the summer. In winter, when it snows, they've got about 60 people out plowing and shoveling to keep customers' sidewalks and driveways clear.
Austin and his wife, Renee, have two children in Saline Area Schools. That's why he chose school board as the arena to give back. Voters elected Austin to the board in 2014. He's not even half-way through a six-year term. Last year, he served as vice-president.
As a business owner and staunch conservative (Austin likes to read founding documents in is spare time), one of Austin's chief concerns is fiscal discipline. He's learned a lot in his two years on the board.
"I thought I was pretty keen on what's going on. But once you get involved, you realize how little you actually know," Austin said. "The board doesn't have as much control over things as people might think."
The financial pie, mostly funded by the state, is only so big. If you spend money in one place, you're taking that money from another. And if you want to renovate deteriorating facilities, well, you need to make a new pie. That’s what voters did in 2015, when they passed a 20-year, $67.5 million bond issue to upgrade Saline's schools.
"Superintendent Scot Graden laid down a great road map. But it really helped that we were in much better financial shape," Austin said.
Saline voters had previously twice rejected bond issues. Austin was alarmed about the district's financial picture. The district's fund balance had dropped to below two percent of the general fund at a time when the state was taking over school districts. The board, led by the late Holden, made a concerted effort to restrain spending. Boards since then have continued on that path.
The district is in much better shape today. The bond issue is paying for the most important upgrades. Enrollment has stabilized, thanks in part to schools of choice. Washtenaw County voters passed a special education millage that gives the district about $2 million a year.
Austin wants to make sure the district doesn't slide back into a financial mess. He'd like to see the district grow the fund balance. It's at about six percent now. The state recommends eight percent. A healthier rainy day fund gives the district short term insurance against low enrollment or potential instability in state funding, Austin said.
But there are other things competing for that money. The district wants to put away a little more money for infrastructure. And the teachers have been working without a contract since the new year began.
Saline school teachers are paid well compared to state averages. Austin said that even though Saline isn't funded as well as many of the districts with high salaries, competitive teacher pay is important.
"We want to continue to attract and retain the best teachers. That's how we're going to keep Saline Schools at the top of the list," he said.
Looking ahead, Austin said he wants to see the district continue to develop next generation learning. He credited the Foundation for Saline Area Schools and the PTAs for helping to fund so many next-gen initiatives.
He's also impressed by what he sees at Saline Alternative High School.
"It's a great resource for our students. If the need is there, I'd like to see use the school even more," he said.
Austin is also impressed by the vocational programs in the South and West Washtenaw Consortium at Saline High School. He'd like to see an even greater push in that direction.