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Paynesville Press - April 2, 2003

School administration alters budget adjustment proposals

By Michael Jacobson

A new proposal of budget adjustments by school administrators spares the elementary school from any staff cuts but increases staff cuts at the high school.

The new proposal came about in part due to concerns about class sizes at the elementary school and in part because registration is done at the high school.

Before any discussion about the budget adjustment proposal, superintendent Howard Caldwell went through the district's financial position again. Even with the extra revenue from the voter-approved levy and with budget cuts totaling over $800,000 scheduled for the next four years, the district does not expect a fund balance of more than four percent in the next four years. The district's goal is to have a month of operating expenses on hand, or an eight percent balance. "I don't mean to hammer this continuously, but I think it's important that we know where we are at as a school district, especially with declining enrollment," said Caldwell.

With the state budget being tight, the school district could still lose funding for the coming year, like compensatory revenue, which is paid to school districts on the basis of the number of their students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. "We have to be conservative, I feel, in where we spend our money," Caldwell told the board. "At the same time, we need to offer well-rounded programs."

schoool budget chart With registration done, the district now has projected numbers for classes in the high school. Caldwell and principals John Janotta and Deb Gillman were able to look at class sizes and staffing levels at the high school.

Administration has now identified that one teaching position can be reduced in the social science department, which will be done by not replacing retiring teacher Gerry Meyer.

Class sizes at the high school are not as uniform as in the elementary and middle school, Janotta told the board, since the schedule is based on the interest of each individual student. Reducing the social science staff by one teacher will mean class sizes around 27 or 28 in ninth grade and between 20 and 30, depending on demand, in the upper grades.

Due to enrollments, a cut of a part-time science teacher in the high school has also been added as a possible savings of $23,000. For instance, only 57 students signed up to take chemistry next year, down from over 65 students in past years, which enables the district to offer only two sections instead of three.

On the other hand, enrollment in foreign languages - German and Spanish - is over 200 students, and this required the addition of an extra semester of German, or one class would have had 37 students.

Similarily, the administration recommended cutting a semester class in communications, eliminating an elective, meaning that the class sizes in other elective courses for communications will go up. They also recommended cutting two semester classes in high school mathematics. For science and math, some classes could have 30 students while upper classes might still have only 10 to 15.

Final enrollments for these classes will not be known until actual schedules for each student are finished, Janotta told the board. These numbers were based on interest levels at registration, but sometimes conflicts prevent students from taking all the classes for which they expressed interest, lowering some class sizes while raising others.

In addition to the teacher cut in the social science department, the administration continues to propose a teacher reduction in sixth grade, cutting that grade from four sections to three. Class sizes in sixth grade next year would be 26 or 27 students per class. These are the same class sizes that these students now have in fifth grade.

These teacher eliminations save the district roughly $50,000 each.

The board also expects to save nearly $75,000 from retirement, since more senior teachers are retiring and hopefully less experienced teachers (costing less) can be hired as replacements. Caldwell warned that these replacements, even if hired with less experience, will move up the pay scale. The district's enrollment (if kindergarten classes continue to be 75 and graduating classes continue to be 100) will continue to drop, possibly under 1,000 total enrollment.

The new proposal keeps elementary class sections at four in the first and second grades, while the original administration proposal reduced the elementary teaching staff by one by having the first and second grades share a teacher.

The proposal still includes using the Title I teacher to reduce class sizes in the third grade. Board member Deb Glenz expressed concerns about doing this.

This year, the third grade is divided into three sections, but the administration has proposed having the Title I teacher teach Title I students for reading and math separately. This would effectively give the grade four sections for reading and math (with class sizes of 20 or 21) and three sections for other subjects (with class sizes of 27 or 28).

The Title I teacher would then be available for tutoring with students in other grades for only half the day.

This arrangement would require that third grade teacher coordinate their schedules to have reading and math at the same time each day. Though it would be difficult to schedule, elementary principal Todd Burlingame said it would be possible to do.

A group of elementary teachers addressed the board at its first meeting in March and asked the board to consider four sections in grades K-3, which would require adding teachers in the elementary school.

"Can we do it?" asked Caldwell. "But for how long?"

Part of the elementary teacher's argument was that it was not fair that they should cut a teacher when they are projected to lose only six students for the 2003-04 school year. But now the budget reduction plan calls for the high school - which should gain students next year - to lose a teacher and a half.

Board chairman Pat Flanders warned the board that adding teachers when losing students is not good business. The board certainly could do this, but he warned that it could be unfair to future students and future boards.

The school board tried this several years ago, and while Flanders said he did not consider it a mistake to try to keep class sizes as low as possible back then, the school board was forced to make more severe budget cuts later when finances dictated. Bigger cuts drew bigger crowds, he added.

"It would be wonderful to have four sections in third grade," said Burlingame. "I'm happy we don't have to cut an FTE in the elementary school."

While the school board seemed to be in agreement on most items, some other questions remain, in addition to staffing of the third grade. Among the other issues are possibly charging fees for fine arts extracurriculars, having enough athletic helpers to compensate for the loss of three junior high coaches, and the exact cost of adding one-act play to the budget.

Staffing for kindergarten is also not known. This year, with 76 students in kindergarten, the district has just three sections, with teachers and parents saying that classes of 25 or 26 students being too large. Right now, the district has 81 students who are eligible to start kindergarten this fall, which would seem to require four sections for sure. But of these possible kindergarten students, 16 have summer birthdays, which could reduce the class sizes depending on how many opt to start school next fall.

The district should have a better handle on how many students will start kindergarten next fall - and thus how many sections are needed - following kindergarten round up in early May.

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