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Paynesville Press - October 22, 2003

School district looks to reorganize

By Michael Jacobson

How the Paynesville Area Public Schools will be organized next year - and for years to come - is a big decision facing the school board.

For the past decade, the local school district has operated three school buildings - an elementary school, a middle school, and a high school. But, for next year, the school district will try to reduce its administrative staff to two building principals and a superintendent.

The current arrangement really started with the opening of the Paynesville Area Middle School in the early 1990s and the founding of the middle school concept. This philosophy sees a need to bridge the gap between elementary school (where social skills and development have equal weight with academics) and high school (where academic performance is king).

Take two examples to illustrate the differences: homework and student movement. Traditionally in the elementary school, homework is minimal and student movement is done in groups, in lines, with teachers leading the class. At the high school, students have their own schedule and are responsible to get themselves to class on time and to do their homework.

The middle school concept tries to bridge this gap and to recognize that these young teens - typically 12- to 14-year-olds - have special academic and social needs. So, in the middle school, students start getting more homework but teachers try to monitor these study habits. Students have lockers and move to classes in the middle school, but, until budget cuts eliminated it, they also had homerooms and advisors that they saw everyday.

Due to budget cuts the past two years, the middle school concept has taken a hit, starting with the elimination of common prep time for grade-level teachers, the elimination of a full-time middle school principal position (with principal on special assignment Deb Gillman handling a number of tasks), and the switch to a seven-period day (like the high school) to enable better staff sharing between the high and middle schools.

Recently, school board members met informally with the middle school staff, as well as other teachers, with middle school teachers urging the district to retain the K-5, 6-8, and 9-12 building model. At the heart of their plea was a desire to keep as much of the middle school concept as possible.

Last week, board members expressed sympathy to keeping a K-5 building, a 6-8 building, and a 9-12 building but noted the need to reduce administration to two building principals.

Another option would be to move the sixth graders to the elementary school next year and have a K-6 building with one principal and a 7-12 building with another principal. "I kept asking the same question: Why do we have to move them?" said board member Deb Glenz after meeting with the staff. "Why should we crowd one building (by moving the sixth grade to the elementary school) and leave another building half empty?"

"I think there are a ton of alternatives that we haven't even looked at yet," she added.

"Sixth grade is a big transition," agreed board member Allen Schmidt, defending the need for the middle school concept. "I've seen it with my own kids."

At the same time, the district needs to figure out a way to have only two building principals, said Schmidt. "If you look at other schools our size, they're doing it," he said.

Principal John Janotta warned the board that they faced a difficult task, especially with declining enrollment indicating a continuing need for budget reductions. Right now, he noted, smaller class sizes have reached only sixth grade, meaning they could continue for the next six years. Losing 20-30 students each year, at $5,000 in state aid per student, means $150,000 in revenue losses per year if the enrollment trends continues.

That means over $1 million in budget reductions in the next six years. "That's what I guess they call the big picture," said Janotta.

One option for keeping the middle school concept is to utilize "site-base planning," with teachers assuming some administrative duties. This, in fact, is what is already being done at the middle school, since each grade the past two years has had a teacher in charge of discipline, with Gillman just overseeing the middle school staff, not the students.

As a first step, the board decided it needed to look at the current administrative duties and decide how, and if, they could be divided between two building principals. The most complicated are Gillman's duties, since as principal on special assignment she handles a range of tasks, from being curriculum coordinator to the district's Title program coordinator to overseeing ECFE.

With elementary principal Todd Burlingame being promoted to superintendent to replace retiring Howard Caldwell, the district will have only three administrators on staff come June 2004, just right for having two principals and one superintendent.

But that might not be enough. Currently, Gillman spends roughly a third of her time as curriculum coordinator, and the district may have to look at sharing someone with a neighboring school district, as it previously shared a curriculum coordinator with Minnewaska.

Board member Mark Dingmann said that the board will need input from staff and administration to decide on these structural changes. Even the structure of the current school day in the middle and high schools - with seven periods - should be reconsidered, he said.

The board set a special meeting for Thursday, Oct. 23, at 7:30 p.m. in the elementary media center to start the task of looking at administrative duties and how they could be reassigned to two principals. This is intended to be a working board meeting between the board and administration. The public is welcome to attend, but they should expect to be observers unless asked for input.

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