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Paynesville Press - May 4, 2005

School board approves cuts for 2005-06

By Michael Jacobson

The Paynesville Area School Board approved making $190,900 in cuts to its 2005-06 budget last week and put the district's hopes to add a teacher at the elementary school in the hands of the Minnesota Legislature.

The board had largely agreed on most of the budget adjustments, as recommended by administration, which had been the subject of the last several board meetings. With a ten staff retirements announced for the end of this school year, most of the cuts will come from not replacing retiring staff, including three and a half teaching positions (an elementary special education position and two and a half positions at the middle/high schools) and one secretary position.

These staffing reductions are estimated by administration to reduce next year's budget by $210,750.

The board also approved adding a sixth-class assignment ($4,050) and increasing a speech clinician from 0.6 FTE to 1.0 FTE ($15,800), bringing the total budget adjustments down to $190,900.

Two main issues remained at last week's board meeting: the elementary staff's request to add a teacher at the primary grades (kindergarten and first grade) and the status of the middle school office.

Superintendent Todd Burlingame started the discussion about adding a teacher at the elementary school by reviewing the district's financial projections. Due to declining enrollment, these are "not a pretty picture," he told the board.

Right now, the school district is graduating classes that average around 100 students and enrolling classes that average about 75, which is the ugliest number for elementary staffing, said Burlingame. Dividing 75 into three classes yields class sizes of 25, which is less than ideal, but the district cannot currently afford to divide 75 into four classes.

The district is projecting a deficit budget this year and is projecting to have a smaller enrollment next year - by 15 - after graduating 93 seniors. Even with the $190,900 in budget cuts, the district expects its expenditures next year to stay about even, said Burlingame, due to increases in its expenses. Meanwhile, the district's projected enrollment losses figure to cost it $128,800 in less revenue next year.

All the board members agreed that having four sections of kindergarten (with 85 expected students) and four sections of first grade (with 76 expected students) would be the best, yielding class sizes of 22 or 23 in kindergarten and 19 in first grade. Success at the primary level carries through the school system, several board members noted.

But a majority of the board was unwilling to add a section while projecting a deficit budget for next year. Or at least without having a plan to pay for the extra teacher.

Right now, though, the district is not including in its budget projections any increase in state funding. Burlingame told the board that he wanted to make sure his estimates were conservative and did not want to include additional funding until it became a reality.

With the district's projected weighted enrollment being 1,239.77 next year, Burlingame did present the board with the impact from various state funding increases. A two-percent increase (like the governor's proposal) would mean $114,000 in extra revenue for the district, according to Burlingame; a three-percent increase (like the House proposal) would mean $172,300 in extra revenue; and a five-percent increase (like the Senate proposal) would mean $286,400 for the district.

The board eventually voted 5-1 to have administration add an extra teacher at the elementary - either to offer four sections of both kindergarten or to offer multiage classrooms as recently proposed by the elementary staff - if the legislature provides a 2.5 percent or greater funding increase to schools.

(The elementary staff has proposed adding two sections of multiage classrooms in kindergarten and first grade next year. Under their proposal, if another teacher were added, there would be three kindergarten sections next year, three first grade sections next year, and two kindergarten/first grade multiage classrooms next year.)

Board member Tami Stanger, the most vocal about the need to add another class section to the primary grades, voted against this motion. Since the district was already going to deficit spend next year, they might as well spend what they could to optimize learning in the primary grades. She would rather have 35 students per class in the high school than 25 in a primary grade (as is projected for first grade next year without the additional teacher).

Board members also expressed concern about losing students to open enrollment due to large class sizes. But when asked to brainstorm about possible cuts - to elective offerings in the upper grades - this, too, could lead to enrollment losses through open enrollment and the post-secondary option, noted high school principal John Janotta. High school students, he added, are more mobile than elementary students.

Janotta also urged the board members, staff, parents, and students to contact their legislators in the final weeks of the session, when the critical decisions on school funding will be made.

The board did not make a final decision about the middle school office. Administration has recommended not replacing a retiring secretary and, for efficiency, having both the secretaries at the middle/ high school in the same office with the 6-12 principal.

Board members, though, did express a desire to keep the middle school office open and available to students somehow, directed administration to look at alternatives to staffing this office, either with a nonsecretary or with a secretary at no additional cost (by reducing noncontact hours, etc.), and tabled action on the office question until administration could make another proposal to the board.

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