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Paynesville Press - March 6, 2002

School district approves budget adjustments

By Michael Jacobson

Keeping class sizes as small as possible was given the highest priority by the school board as it announced its budget reductions for the 2002-03 school year last week. Budget cuts box

The board made its final decisions on the necessary $500,000 in budget adjustments at its regular monthly meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 26.

More than $625,000 in potential reductions were proposed to the board, which needed to make $500,000 in budget reductions to escape deficit spending and start rebuilding its general fund balance. The district is in statutory operating debt and the plan it submitted to the state included making $500,000 iu budget adjustments.

On Tuesday, the board started by approving two revenue increases for 2002-03. Fees for high school athletics will increase by $40, from $35 per sport to $75. The board also backed a proposal to charge a parking fee for the student lot. These two items are projected to provide the district an extra $20,000 next year.

These revenue increases reduced the need for budget reductions from $500,000 to $480,000.

From its rankings of the proposed budget cuts, the board voted to save three classroom teachers. The top priorities on the board's compiled rankings were keeping four class sections in second grade, seventh grade, and sixth grade, not reducing these grades to three sections in 2002-03.

Reducing these grades to three sections would have meant class sizes of at least 26 students in the second grade and around 31 students in the sixth and seventh grades next year.

The board approved reducing first grade to three sections, but intends to reinstate a fourth section later this year using federal funds for class size reduction. The school administration has assured the board the funds will be available to pay for another first grade teacher.

The item had to be cut, though, because the federal funds need to be used on a new expenditure item. Thus, if the board had kept four first grade sections in its budget, it couldn't use federal dollars to pay for it.

In addition to saving three teachers, the board was able to reinstate several items after the presentation of $65,667 to the district from the "Keep the Quality" Campaign, a fund-raising effort organized by local volunteers to reduce the need for budget reductions.

The board had previously agreed to reinstate the cut items that had been rated the highest by the board. As of last week, the money from the "Keep the Quality" Campaign was sufficient to reinstate student council advisors in the middle and high schools, the middle and high school speech teams, school plays, computer coordinators at the middle and high school, cheerleading, and danceline. It was also enough to pay for almost 90 percent of the salary and benefits of a math teacher in the middle and high schools.

Another $7,000 needs to be raised to insure the reinstatement of that teaching position. The campaign will continue to accept checks, chairman Dr. Bob Gardner told the board. Donations can be mailed to the "Keep the Quality" Campaign at P.O. Box 187, Paynesville, MN 56362.

The campaign received 235 donations totalling $65,667, Gardner told the board last week. He said it was encouraging that people would be willing to donate from their own pockets to help the school district.

The campaign had its origin at the public hearing about the proposed budget cuts in early February, when Gardner suggested some fund raising could be done to ease the district's financial situation. "All these people who gave made it a reality," he said.

The district office will now be responsible for sending letters that acknowledge the contributions, which will also act as proof tax-deductible donations for the IRS.

The cuts this year differed substantially from those the board made a year ago, when virtually all of the extracurricular activities were saved while more than four teaching positions were cut. The only teaching position that was saved last year was a half-time kindergarten teacher.

This year, the board not only did not cut the kindergarten staffing, it actually added a half-time kindergarten teacher, needed to expand the program to an all-day, everyday offering. The board also saved three teachers (four if you include first grade and five if you include the math position, which is mostly paid for already.) The board did approve cutting a music teacher in the middle and high school, a section in fifth grade, and another teaching position in the high school by adjusting class sizes in all curriculum areas.

Other notable reductions in the budget included: the middle school principal position ($63,508); seventh and eighth grade athletics ($39,710), which will now be offered through Community Education; and marching band ($9,500).

Also on Tuesday, the board approved having another levy referendum in April. Money from the levy could reduce the need to do future budget cuts (as called for by the district's statutory operating debt plan) as well as reinstate some of the items that have been cut in recent years.

The worst part is over, predicted board chairman Pat Flanders after the board made these cuts last week, and the district needs to focus again on its quality teaching staff and its still excellent student-to-teacher ratios. "We've already passed our midpoint. We're on the way back up," he predicted. "I truly believe the worst is past."

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