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MISD board accepts super's 'retirement'

By Carolyn B. Edwards BCC Staff Writer

Pictured: Photo by Carolyn B. Edwards
Financial consultant Wes Hays, center, explains the financial situation of the Medina ISD to board members Robert Ashley, Brad Zirkel, and Inman Dabney, at left, and Andy Lautzenheiser and Laura Ortiz at right. Not pictured is trustee LaNek Sides. Board member Robert Selement was absent at the emergency called meeting held Monday night.

In a unanimous vote following an extended executive session, the board of trustees of the Medina Independent School District accepted Superintendent Ross Hord's offer of retirement at a called emergency meeting held Monday night in Medina.

Rumors had swirled through the hamlet in the center of Bandera County throughout the day regarding Hord's continued employment. An item on the agenda that said the board would "consider, discuss, and take appropriate action regarding...the appointment, employment, evaluation, reassignment, duties, discipline or dismissal of the superindent" added fuel to the rumor mill.

The inclusion of an item to consider "financial consultant services" had community members speculating about missing funds or other financial malfeasance.

However, according to professional financial advisor Wes Hays, "nothing indicates any wrong doing" on anyone's part. Hays had spent the Thanksgiving holidays studying the district's financials and audit reports.

On the other hand, the district finds itself in serious financial difficulties that need to be considered and remedied, Hays added.

The board got its first signs of its cash crunch when the district received a bill from the State of Texas for $35,000 when it had been expecting a state aid check for over $200,000.

Following the executive session, trustee Brad Zirkel said he had concerns about "every item in this year's budget being in the negative," but said Hord had assured him that the revenue [presumably from the State] would come in. Zirkel also shared a paragraph from an audit summary that said, "the district's financial statements did not reflect actual numbers."

Board President Andy Lautzenheiser responded emotionally to several speakers from the community by saying, "If you think this is fun for any of us up here, you have another think coming. We have $1.96 million owed to the state and we've got seven months until we have to shut the doors."

What got MISD into trouble?

School finance is a complicated issue, but the key to state aid is a district's average daily attendance, or ADA. Over the last five years, Hays pointed out, the district has lost 25 percent of their previous average ADA.

If the state funds $10,000 per student and the district loses 20 students, that's a drop of $200,000 in funding. According to a recent audit report referenced by Hays and Zirkel, the district failed to anticipate this drop in funding when developing budgets over the last three years. As a result, the annual shortfalls have been adding up.

Hays, who has served several struggling school districts across the state as a financial advisor and interim superintendent, said, "There is no magic wand. It takes everybody to work together - the board, the staff, the community - to work [the problems] out."

Hays offered some suggestions for dealing with the situation, with some being a more bitter pill than many on the board or in the audience wanted to hear. He even dared to use the T-word - taxes.

"You may need to raise taxes [through a Tax Ratification Election]," he said, bluntly.

An additional option he suggested was to cut administration by "combining principals, or having the superintendent act as a principal."

He also urged the board to look at making cuts in staffing in the ancillary services, such as the cafeteria or maintenance. "Personnel cuts are always easier if you can do it by attrition over a long period of time." Medina, however, doesn't seem to have that luxury.

Hays pointed out that the district currently carries some $750,000 in its designated reserve fund balance, $500,000 set aside for construction, and $250,000 for capital expenditures. He suggested the board vote to move those funds in order to cover the district's current shortfall.

'Not circling drain'

"The good news is you're not in the hole; nothing indicates any wrong-doing; you're not circling the drain," he advised. Circling the drain, he explained, was a point where staffing costs more than the fund balance and ADA funding can cover.

Hays repeatedly said that schools have to be run like businesses. He noted that Medina's cafeteria has been running in the red for years. "That's a little business within your business...it should operate on an even keel." He suggested the board consider raising lunch prices, reducing personnel and cutting production costs. When told the district has an open lunch policy for high school students (meaning they can leave campus for lunch), he said, "That means you're losing revenue."

A person in the audience hinted that the district may need to do more to make sure all families eligible for free and reduced lunches were signed up.

The MISD board recently voted to switch from 11-man to 6-man football in response to dropping enrollment that led to having only 13 boys on the squad.

Where did they go?

A number of factors have led to that exodus of students.

One concerned community member pointed to the rise in gas prices and the increase in property taxes as factors. "People can't afford to live in Medina and drive to San Antonio to work like they once did," he said. A lack of employment opportunities in Medina means those families have moved closer to the city.

The biggest factor however, has been a change in the program goals of the Medina Children's Home. The district actively courted the establishment of a children's home decades ago in order to stave off consolidation with Bandera.

Group homes at the facility that served troubled, abandoned and abused children provided the student numbers that filled the classrooms. In addition, because many of those children had special needs, the district benefitted from weighted ADA, or WADA, funding, where the state counted each student equivalent to as many as five persons. Many of these students attended MISD schools for years until they graduated.

In recent years, however, the MCH has shifted its focus from teens to single mothers who stay at the facility for a shorter period of time. Their children also tend to be babies and pre-schoolers.

Community speaks

At the beginning of Monday night's meeting, several representatives of the large number of residents and school staffers in attendance addressed the board.

Amy Craddock, long-time secretary to the secondary principal, said she had put her "heart and soul into this place... and our superintendent has done the same."

Former principal Dale Naumann admitted to having a knot in his stomach over the situation. "I've been at this school for 27 years and I hate to see someone thrown under the bus." He closed by telling the board, "I know you've got a tough job."

Teacher Serena Whitewood talked about how close the school staff is and how everyone, including Hord, works together. "I don't want to see us torn apart like this."

Others residents in the crowd had nothing but positive remarks to share about Hord. Many stressed the "family" feel of the tight knit community. "We really are family," said one woman. "I hope this doesn't break us up."

Hord joined the administration of Medina ISD in 2000 as a high school principal. He moved up to the superintendency in 2007. His retirement will be effective Jan. 31, 2014.

In the meantime, the MISD board will be searching for an interim.