School district cuts $512,000

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 3/07/01.

In the culmination of a four-month process, the Paynesville Area School Board approved $512,000 worth of cuts for next year's school budget on Tuesday, Feb. 27. The board voted unanimously to make the cuts, which should accomplish their goal of reducing the district's expenditures by a half million dollars. Click here for a list of the cuts.

Over a third of the cuts will be made at the elementary school, where the second, third, and fourth grades will be reduced from four sections to three. In all, almost $200,000 will be cut from the elementary school.

Saved at the elementary school was the kindergarten program, which could have been changed to every other, all day classes to save in transportation costs. It also could have been reduced from five sections to four. These two items combined for almost $50,000, which was kept in the budget.

The biggest winner was extracurricular activities, which faced over $60,000 worth of cuts, including the jazz and marching bands, the pops choir, junior high athletics, and the speech and knowledge bowl teams. None of these cuts were made, as the board opted to save a larger number of smaller items.

School board chairman Pat Flanders defended the importance of extracurricular activities before the cuts were made. Plus, he noted that athletics spends $180,000 and generates $30,000 in revenue. Cutting $150,000 wouldn't solve the $500,000 problem, he noted.

"I don't think there are many people in this community who think we should lock the doors of the school at 3:15 p.m.," he added.

The board has shown interest in raising the fees that students pay for participating in extracurricular activities. Fees could be raised from $20 to $40 and also expanded to cover more activities. The board could address these options at their March meetings.

(The board cut its per diem to one a month, saving the district $3,617 per year, but plans to continue to meet twice a month.)

Almost $150,000 of the cuts in the elementary school comes from the reduction of three teachers in second, third, and fourth grades. In all, the school will eliminate the equivalent of nearly seven full-time teachers. This adds up to a savings of over $300,000.

School administration now has the task of reassigning the teaching staff, based on the teachers' qualifications and their seniority. Superintendent Howard Caldwell hopes to have the assignments completed within a month and brought back to the school board for approval.

The middle school and the high school saw fewer cuts than the elementary school. (See the shaded box below.) The declining enrollment in the district, which is the major factor driving the school's troubled finances, is in the lower grades.

Flanders said the class sizes for next year, while five students per teacher higher than this year, still are comparable to the district's averages over the past ten years. "They're numbers that are not as nice as they've been," he admitted, but not unmanageable.

Budget reduction process
The cuts were needed, the board has stated, to make up for the fourth year of a projected budget deficit. The school board approved a $500,000 deficit budget for the current school year.

The budget reduction process started in November with the board setting a goal of $500,000 in cuts and establishing a timeline for the process. Administrators then spent six weeks looking at the programs and recommending areas where money could be saved.

Almost $700,000 in proposed cuts were announced in January, and the board had an opportunity to research them and listen to public input at a hearing in February.

Then board members had two weeks to prioritize the items, grading each on a scale of one to seven. Items given ones were deemed as the most important to keep, while sevens were best to cut.

The final cuts were based on a tabulation of all the rankings by all seven school board members. The board included items until the $500,000 goal was reached. The final tally of cuts reached $512,000 because the last item (integrating sixth grade art into the classroom) saved nearly $20,000.

A score of 49 - sevens from all seven board members - meant the item was universally accepted as a cut.

A low total score, conversely, meant the item was a high priority to keep. Priority items to keep included every day, half day kindergarten ($24,675), the speech team ($3,769), marching band ($9,298), multiple preschool screenings ($508), cheerleading (5,621), and play productions ($4,351).

The last items to be saved were a seventh and eighth grade wrestling coach and the FLA advisor in the middle school. Both of these got the same rating as integrating art into the sixth grade classroom - the last item to be cut - but because the coach and FLA advisor cost less they were saved.

The cuts were made with little discussion. Flanders prefaced the decision with a few remarks. "I know that they're things that each of us would change if we had our own way," he said.

"We have a good school here," he added, "and I think we still will."

Board member Bob See wanted to know the process for returning things to the budget, which Flanders assured him could be done very easily if the revenue for the expenditure arrived.

The meeting was attended by 30 people, many of them teachers. The board took just a quick question from the audience. The public's chance for input, Flanders said, was at the hearing in February.

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