‘We weren’t going to fritter stuff away,’ superintendent says
Standish-Sterling Central High School would be a showcase building in any school district. Just when the tour of the new swimming pool, 700-seat theater, technology lab and 2,200-seat gymnasium is finished, Superintendent Claude Inch takes guests outside to see the $1 million athletic field house.
But south of the intersection of Grove and Wyatt streets in Arenac County, where the school sits, and behind the nearby middle school, is a much smaller building. This grey structure is a former woodshop that was converted into the district’s administration center by building trades students, at a cost of $115,000.
When a visitor points out the contrast between the multi-million dollar high school and Inch’s own office, the superintendent looks around his room.
"You don’t need much," he says, pointing out the window to another small building nearby. That’s a former auto shop and tractor repair building that is now the site of Standish-Sterling Board of Education meetings and an alternative education program.
"As the community saw, we weren’t going to fritter stuff away," Inch said. "Our people are generally very pleased with what they get from the district." These twin ideas of serving the students but keeping a strict eye on the budget are a frequent theme in Standish-Sterling. Amid news stories about declining enrollments, skimpy fund balances and school closings in many Michigan districts, Inch is retiring in March on what most districts would consider a very high note. Consider:
—In the last eight years, the district has built a new high school and refurbished all its other buildings, thanks to taxpayer approval of a 7-mill tax increase in 1998.
—It paid $4 million in cash from its operating fund balance for a new swimming pool that opened in 2006, yet still has $5.7 million in the balance, or between 20 and 30 percent of operating expenses.
—All district schools have made Adequate Yearly Progress under No Child Left Behind guidelines and earned an A or B on state report cards. All district buildings also hold accreditation through the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.
All of this has happened in a district in which nearly 60 percent of the elementary and middle school students are eligible for free or reduced lunches.
Inch says the district’s success through lean times is due to a supportive staff, school board and community. He also says Standish-Sterling is not the only success story in Michigan education. But Inch’s approach to running this small, rural district appears to be key — and others confirm the point.
The right approach is academics first, Inch says, underwritten by sound and conservative business practices. Inch holds a master’s degree in business administration, with a concentration in management and finance, which he believes has served the district well.
"This is one of the longest periods of hard times we have seen (in Michigan education)," Inch said, pointing to several years of declining enrollment and rising costs. "That’s a very bad scenario." The district copes, he and others said, by making long-term projections on costs and enrollment, keeping a close eye on staffing levels, putting money aside, sharing resources among buildings and taking state aid announcements with a grain of salt.
"If they give you money this year, you can’t assume they’ll give you money next year," Inch said of the state. "We’ve always used a very conservative approach to determine which programs we’re going to offer, and that has prevented us from getting overextended."
This conservative approach dates back to 1994, when Michigan voters passed Proposal A and changed the way Michigan pays for public schools from primarily local property taxes to an increased sales tax with revenue distributed across districts. The idea was to help districts with lower property values catch up to those with higher values.
"We do not have the capacity here, based on state equalized valuation, to generate the kind of money (from property taxes) another district does," Inch said. The funding switch helped Standish-Sterling, which took in less money from local taxes than 95 percent of all Michigan districts under the former plan. The new funding plan meant thousands of dollars more per student to the district.
"We had absolutely nothing," Board of Education President Joan Harder recalled of some periods before Proposal A, when she was a teacher there. "There were times we were told ‘Don’t cash your paycheck until Monday.’"
Following Proposal A, "We made a conscious decision to reserve the money," Inch said. Not all of it, but enough to add to the fund balance for at least 13 consecutive years, to a high of about $11 million. The district put about $3.5 million of its balance into the high school construction and, more recently, paid $4 million for the pool. Having a comfortable fund balance has allowed the district not only to avoid borrowing, but to schedule long-term purchases of things like computers and textbooks and also to budget the extra $1 million in operating expenses the new high school added.
"I can tell you right now how many buses we’ll need and how much it will cost over the next decade," Inch said. Transportation accounts for 10 percent of the budget in this district of 230 square miles, but the school buildings are all located within four miles of each other. That allows for sharing resources like the pool — middle school students walk there for swim class — and the new auditorium, which elementary school students have used for "virtual field trips" to Kenya and the San Diego Zoo. The auditorium’s media system allows the students in the auditorium to exchange questions and answers directly with a tour guide at the remote locations, Inch said.
"They don’t understand how we have so much and they don’t," Harder describes her conversations with board members from other districts. "They don’t understand we have a good money manager."
Roger Anderson, director of instructional services and a former elementary school principal, agrees with Harder.
"Financially, he definitely is the wizard, as we call him," Anderson said of Inch. "That’s how we managed to put money in the bank. We aren’t underpaid, but we all do multiple jobs. There’s a strong work ethic."
Planning for staffing
Inch plans ahead for staffing needs — always the largest expense in a school district — by projecting enrollment years in advance and, he says, by expecting staff to work hard.
"We have a tendency here to home grow all our administrators," he said. The district launched an administrative intern program several years ago in which a teacher is released from part of his or her classroom duties for nine weeks to try out an administrative role or to complete a curriculum-related project. "They’re actually functioning along the lines of an assistant principal," he said. "They have a tendency to be more effective because of the training."
Shelly Malcolm, a sixth-grade teacher, recently finished such an internship, spending half of each day on duties typically carried out by the principal or assistant principal. Before the experience, she said, "I always wondered, ‘What are they doing all day?’ It gave me an unbelievable perspective on what they do. They are up and running every second. … It was a very eye-opening experience for me to be a teacher and see the other side." Malcolm is working on a master’s degree in educational leadership at Saginaw Valley State University and said she can apply the hours she spent in the internship to her degree requirements.
The right supplies and the right design also can reduce staffing needs, Inch pointed out. The EZ Rider cleaning machine — a Zamboni-like vehicle — cuts down on the time required to clean the high school cafeteria floor, and the glass wall between the school library and adjacent computer lab means one person can supervise both rooms. Video cameras monitor other parts of the building.
Overall, state figures show that Standish-Sterling spends less on business administration and more on instructional programs than many other Michigan districts. According to reports filed in 2004-2005, the district ranked 433 out of 750 Michigan districts and public school academies in business and administration expenses per pupil. But it ranked 322nd in the state in the amount spent on total instruction per pupil.
Academics first, superintendent says
Inch said that supports his point: "Our priority has always been academics first. … Success comes from teachers teaching. You need to create a support mechanism that allows them to be successful."
About four years ago the district decided to limit each first-grade classroom to 15 students so that every child could have "a very personal relationship with their teacher and get off to a good start," Inch said. He estimated that that decision costs the district about $90,000 a year, but he believes the payoff comes in students adjusting well to school. "It’s a case of your priorities going to the classroom."
When the district considered designs for the new high school, an "educational blueprint" came before the architectural blueprints. Teachers and staff suggested features that would help them do their jobs. "What would you need to teach art the best way?" Inch asked. Today, "When you go into the building, you can see the art room is conducive to an art teacher. It probably costs you less in the long run because you did it right the first time."
A strong supporter of elective classes and extracurricular activities, Inch said he sees them as a way to keep students interested in school and give them experiences they can add to a college application. Standish-Sterling pays for a full sports program plus things like Science Olympiad, Knowledge Bowl and numerous student organizations. "We have one of the few Future Farmers of America chapters that is still very active," he said. "It makes it more fun for them. It makes going to school a broader experience."
One reason Inch does not approve of Michigan’s new high school graduation requirements is that it will put the squeeze on students who want to take electives like band, he said. "I think that most boards of education would have done better had they been left alone. To say there were no graduation requirements except Civics was a bunch of baloney."
Give-and-take between the school and the community is another reason for Standish-Sterling’s success, staff members say. Many of the local residents were born and raised in the area, Malcolm pointed out. "That network really does go a long way."
School facilities are open to the community much of the time, and the school system provides the only organized recreation in the area. The field house and its indoor turf are shared by students of all ages as well as the community for batting practice, wrestling, pole vaulting, golf practice, flag football and power lifting. The new swimming pool is used more by local residents than by students at this point. But, always watching the budget, the district bought the indoor turf from the University of Alabama, and the Student Council took on the task of laying 10,000 cubic yards of sod at the outdoor sports complex, "which probably saved $10,000 to $15,000 in labor," Inch said.
Inch is keeping himself out of the process of finding his successor. The school board currently is narrowing the field of applicants, with help from a consultant from the Michigan Association of School Boards, according to Harder.
The new chief will have the benefits of a completed building program, a healthy fund balance and community support, but also the challenge of fluctuating scores on standardized tests at the high school.
State figures show that Standish-Sterling Central High School earned a B overall on its latest Michigan Report Card, for 2005-2006. The individual grades for language arts and social studies were A and B, respectively. The grades for science and math were C and D, respectively. The grades reflect not just actual student performance on standardized tests, but also whether the school met improvement targets in each content area.
In contrast, more than 80 percent of the students in the district’s two elementary schools were proficient in math and language arts in recent years.
Anderson, the director of instructional services, says the high school is in the second year of a two-year improvement program funded by a federal Comprehensive School Reform Grant. Totaling more than $200,000, the grant money has been spent on leadership training for teachers, coaching from a retired administrator and the "Collaborating for Student Success" program, in which small groups of teachers meet across disciplines to share ideas and critique each other’s lesson plans.
"It’s a lot more teamwork and a lot more sharing of ideas," Anderson described the program. High schools tend to segregate teachers by subject matter, he said, but "with good teaching strategies, it doesn’t matter what the content is." The same strategies were used at the middle and elementary schools in past years, he said, and "we’re getting a lot of results there. … I’m going to be watching this year’s (high school) test scores real closely."
Inch said he plans to remain in the community after his retirement and spend more time playing golf. "It’s been a good run," he said. "I think this is a good time for me to leave and a good time for the district."
Harder, meanwhile, said with a laugh that the school board is looking for somebody as Inch’s successor who has "experience in academics, in finance, in school law and … in practically everything. … It’s not easy to live here. It’s a slow pace. It takes travel to get to cultural places, but the people who live here love it."