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Paynesville Press - February 6, 2002

Public suggests donations as alternative to budget cuts

By Michael Jacobson

Speaking at the public meeting The numbers were almost identical to a year ago: Around 240 local citizens attended a public hearing on Monday night where just over 40 people spoke to the school board with a half-million dollars in budget cuts hanging overhead.

But the tone at the meeting this year, was quite different. And it started with the first public speaker of the night. "As a community, we now need to pull together for the sake of our children," urged Janell Hoffman, who instead of lobbying to keep certain expenditures in the budget offered general remedies, like more volunteering by parents and better attention by students.

Unlike a year ago, when the school board also held a public hearing during a $500,000 budget reduction process, the district's dire financial position seemed evident to all on Monday night. There was no disputing the necessity of getting the school's budget and general fund balance back in the black.

"What a job," Jan Binsfeld told the board. "What a task before you. I do not envy you."

Several speakers told the board the same thing, again and again. Middle school teacher Bob Bowden likened the current round of budget cuts "to cutting fat from a skeleton."

And while citizens did lobby the school board to save specific programs, the mood was less of turf-guarding and focused more on what could be done to ease the situation.

One new proposal that was supported by a number of speakers was the idea of fund raising to lessen the need for budget cuts. Not just fund raising to save a particular school service, but fund raising to lower the need to do cuts.

Dr. Bob Gardner raised the idea on Monday night, first suggesting that the school district should look at establishing a foundation - as the Paynesville Area Health Care System has just done - to help gather and spend donations on a long-term basis. As for the short term, Gardner said, "I think there are 600 taxpayers in this district who, though they aren't going to give through taxes, could give out of their own pockets."

Later in the hearing, Paul Bugbee picked up Gardner's idea, saying that all the programs listed as potential cuts were important and that fund-raising should be used to help save them. "I fully subscribe to the belief that funds flow to promising programs, not needy institutions," he said, noting that the money to support education would not have to come from taxes.

If 500 people in the community would donate $1,000 apiece, the district wouldn't need to cut anything next year, Bugbee reasoned.

Later, Jim Beckstrand picked up the idea from there, noting that school supporters in Osseo are going door-to-door for donations. Maybe the community would have 1,000 people willing to donate $500 to raise $500,000. Or 2,000 people willing to donate $250, he said.

Even though he doesn't have a lot of money, "I'll donate $500 right now," said Randy Albright a while later. "I'm willing," he added.

The necessity for budget cuts of this magnitude this winter is due to the failure of the school's levy referendum last fall, noted board chairman Pat Flanders and superintendent Howard Caldwell during introductory remarks, and confirmed by a number of speakers.

Local voters rejected paying extra property taxes to aid the school, but they will clearly have to pay to keep some school services. If the cuts go through as proposed, parents and guardians may end up paying for increased athletic fees, for student parking at the high school, for transportation to school (should restrictions be placed on whom the district provides bus transportation), and even for extra days of kindergarten.

(One possible cut would make kindergarten all-day, every-other-day, eliminating noon busing, a $27,000 savings. But the board has expressed interest in exploring all-day, everyday kindergarten, which would provide better continuity but requires a third full-time teacher. To pay for the extra staffing, a charge of $100 per quarter for all-day, everyday kindergarten is being considered. Students on reduced-price lunches would pay $50 per quarter, and students on free lunches would not have to pay extra.)

The board has already discussed using a booster club for each sport to raise funds to support a junior high program for that particular sport. And fund raising could be used to make any extracurricular activity self-sufficient.

But the suggestion on Monday night went beyond fund raising to save a particular item to a community-wide effort to save as many items as possible.

Lobbying the board
The board did hear plenty about the merits of specific programs and was encouraged to consider saving certain programs and services from the elimination.

Perhaps the most popular item of concern was class sizes, both in the elementary and in the middle school. A group of 20 parents of next year's first graders stood together to urge the board not to cut the first grade to three sections next year, which would increase class sizes to 25-28 students.

Lisa Hemmesch, one of two parents from the group who spoke on behalf of keeping four first grade sections, asked the board to visit a first grade classroom before increasing these class sizes.

A number of speakers emphasized that low class sizes are just as important in the middle school. Under the proposed cuts, both the sixth and seventh grades could be reduced to three sections, increasing the classes to a projected average of 31 students, which would be the highest in the district.

Middle school teacher Kathy Olmscheid explained the benefits of the middle school experience for students, with its emphasis on the social development of the students as well as academics. "Please keep in mind that teenagers are very, very vulnerable, too, and they need small class sizes, too," she told the board.

Other speakers listed the benefits of extracurricular activities, especially jazz and marching band, pops choir, cheerleading, and danceline. High school student Sami Tierney spoke so impressively on the benefits of extracurricular activities, which she said would be more memorable for her than things she learned in class, that Bugbee said she had convinced him of the necessity of keeping the speech team.

Some people complained that the cuts were too narrow. In many cases, the argument went, cuts would eliminate entire programs instead of sharing the reduction with other areas.

Cheerleading and danceline, which could be eliminated at the high school, were examples of this arguement. The elimination of a corresponding sport for boys, it was pointed out, was not proposed.

The lack of administration cuts was another area of concern for several speakers, who stressed that they didn't want to target administration, but felt it should offer savings to the school budget, too. The reduction of an entire principal might not be desirable, some said, but some sacrifice should be available.

Another frequent concern was the cuts in music, mostly the extracurricular jazz and marching bands, and the possible reduction of a music teacher, which would allow less time for individual music lessons, which teachers and students stressed were very beneficial.

Charon Tierney said the list of potential cuts was very traditional and that she was concerned that it targeted girls, arts, and the elementary school. She thought the idea of fund raising, though, was not traditional at all.

What will come of it may be better known after the next school board meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 12.

After that, the school board members will rank the potential cuts, in order to have a composite ranking ready for the board meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 26, when the cuts for the 2002-03 budget will be finalized.

(Editor's note: The Press will have more information about the public hearing and school budget cuts in next week's edition. The public hearing was videotaped and will be broadcast on local cable in the next week on Channel 8. Broadcast times were not available when this issue went to press.)

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