Crowd speaks, hears about budget cuts

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 2/07/01.

More than 200 people attended a public hearing about the school budget cuts on Thursday night in the high school cafeteria. More than 30 people addressed the school board to argue to save specific programs or to suggest alternatives to the board.

In its fourth year of deficit spending, the Paynesville Area School District is planning to cut around $500,000 from its budget for next year (2001-02). That is more than six percent of the current budget.

The school's administration came up with close to $700,000 in potential cuts from the school's programs. That list was presented to the board in late January.

The hearing was intended for the public to give the board input before a final decision on the cuts is made. A wide variety of opinions was presented to the board, including keeping kindergarten everyday, keeping teacher to student ratios in the elementary low, the merit of school sports, the value of keeping the cheerleaders and danceline, and the deep cuts in the music program, including the marching band.

The next step will be for the board members to prioritize each potential item. Board members will have a couple weeks to make their individual rankings, then the sheets will be compiled by the district office.

The board is expected to make its final decision on cuts at their meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 27. The last time major budget reductions were made in the district, in 1991, the final cuts were based strictly on the compilation of the board member's rankings.

Save the elementary school
Keeping education strong at the entry level was the strongest focus at the hearing, with at least half a dozen speakers focusing on the need to maintain continuity and adequate staffing in the lower grades.

Board members Pat Flanders, Fern Roberg, Deb Glenz, and Maurice Dosdall listen to a speaker at the hearing. The board is expected to prioritize the cuts and make a final decision at their last meeting in February.

Rhonda Arnold, the mother of a kindergarten student, said the $250,000 in proposed cuts at the elementary school bothered her. Sections could be eliminated in the second, third, and fourth grades.

Other proposals would reduce the kindergarten sections and decrease the amount of instructional assistance time in the elementary school.

"Who's going to help my kid?" Arnold asked. "If you lose these kids in K-3, you've lost them. They're done."

"If they're not getting the instructional assistance they need when they fall off the hill, when are they going to get it?" asked Cindy Spanier, another mother.

The district's emphasis on keeping student to teacher ratios low in these grades was praised at the hearing. And speakers urged the board not to change from this course. "I think it's terribly important to keep those ratios under 20," Dean Hanson told the board.

The cuts are projected to raise teacher to student ratios from 17 to 1 in kindergarten to 23 to 1, from 16 to 1 in second grade to 21 to 1, from 18 to 1 in third grade to 23 to 1, and from 19 to one in fourth grade to 25 to 1.

"Basically, the philosophy the board has had for the last couple years has been to keep student-teacher ratios very low, especially at the elementary level," said superintendent Howard Caldwell at the meeting. But he doesn't think the district can afford to continue this.

The other focus at the elementary school was the proposed change from everyday kindergarten in half-day sessions to all-day sessions with kids coming on alternate days. Colleen Pelton, a kindergarten teacher, talked about the educational benefits of everyday sessions.

Laurey Malling, a parent who used to teach in St. Paul, said all-day sessions were too long for kindergarten students. "How positive can it be when children are tired?" she asked. "Basically, the afternoon is expensive daycare," she added.

Keeping it all
Other educational concerns included the value of keeping a business teacher for sixth grade computer skills, the progress of students who haven't passed the graduation standards test due to the remedial math and English program in the middle and high school, and the relative worths of music, arts, and sports.

Some felt that the music department was being hit too hard by the cuts, and the marching band, jazz band, and pops choir were specifically mentioned as items that should be saved. "If you're going to cut band and choir, why have an auditorium?" asked Karelle Steinhofer.

Steinhofer, whose daughter is a basketball cheerleader, joined a group of people, including several high school students, who spoke to save that program. Another group of high school students spoke to save the danceline.

A difference of opinion surfaced about the relative merit of sports program in the school. Some said these should be secondary and seventh and eighth grade sports could be run successfully through community education.

Others argued that valuable lessons could be taught in sports, that sports can keep students interested in school, and that at-risk students might be the ones who can least afford to pick up the cost of the sports.

Several people expressed a desire not to make any cuts at all, to keep all the offerings at the school. "Somebody had to pay for me to have all those luxuries, so it's my job to pay for those for my kids and yours," said Terry Skoglund, the last speaker of the night.

Item change
The proposed cut that would reduce all supply expense by 25 percent has been reduced to $52,565 from $56,525. Athletic transportation expense was removed from this item, causing the $4,000 reduction.

Athletic supplies and expenses for officials could still be cut by 25 percent, from $45,000 this year to less than $34,000 next year. This reduction could lead to the scheduling of fewer athletic events.

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