Northeast Michigan schools boost savings with new income

News Photo by Barbara Woodham Alpena Public Schools Board of Education Trustee Ken Gembel, left, and APS Superintendent Dave Rabbideau pose for a photo in the hall at Lincoln Elementary School.

ALPENA — Northeast Michigan school districts boosted their savings accounts by big numbers with millions of new revenue through state and federal coronavirus relief dollars.

Combined, Northeast Michigan schools took in more than $5 million in additional revenue last school year compared to the year before, according to a News analysis of financial audits recently made public. Districts spent only $1.2 million more last school year, allowing them to add nearly $5 million to cash savings at the end of last school year.

Districts use those accounts to cover bills and payroll in between payments from the state.

The money came through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, part of trillions of dollars in stimulus funds Congress passed to help the nation respond to the coronavirus pandemic. The money came in three parts, the first for purchasing cleaning products, masks, and other immediate needs pertaining to the pandemic, the second to aid with new teaching procedures, such as remote learning issues, and the purchasing of technology for that purpose.

The third and largest part of that money was dedicated to support personnel, teachers, and help schools overcome any unexpected issues that may still arise from COVID-19 over the next two to three years, explained Carl Seiter, superintendent of Hillman and Atlanta school districts.

Schools are well-positioned to handle the unexpected. Collectively, schools started this school year with $16.4 million in the bank, enough to cover 22% of their annual expenses. At the start of last school year, they could cover 16%.

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Percentage-wise, Hillman had the biggest increase in revenue, with its income growing 19% from the 2019-20 to 2020-21 school years, according to the audits. Hillman cut its spending by nearly 5%, allowing it to nearly double its cash savings.

“Naturally, since the pandemic, more federal money has helped,” Seiter said.

The reason for the greater ending fund balance is that the district “did not spend foolishly,” Seiter said. “It has been a collective effort not to spend it just because we have it.”

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He said that he was concerned with the uncertainty of the economy as a whole and wanted to stay prepared.

Seiter said that some of his districts’ ESSR money was used to hire mental health care support and other support positions to help students deal with problems of the pandemic.

Individually, local school districts showed very different numbers last school year from the previous year, according to the audits.

Alpena took in more than $2 million in new revenue, kept spending essentially flat, and added $2 million to the bank.

The Posen Consolidated School District went from having enough in savings to cover 8% of expenses at the start of last school year to nearly 16% this school year.

“It was a combination of things,” said Lucia Bruski, business financial coordinator for Posen.

She said the ESSER money was a big part of the increase, as well as some downsizing done by the district.

“One teacher retired and we did not replace that position,” she said. “We also cut out one of our bus routes.”

Another standout was Onaway Area Schools, which more than doubled its cash savings from 2020 to 2021.

Superintendents from Onaway and Alpena could not be reached for comment on this story.

Check out the interactive graphic below.


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