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22 positions at stake in District 833's $2M budget-cutting plan

When the District 833 School Board meets on March 21, the three budget-cutting options that have been discussed over the past month will be off the table.

Instead, a compromise "hybrid" plan is getting board members' support and will accomplish a needed $2 million budget cut.

If approved, the majority of the money saved -- $1.5 million -- will come by cutting 22.5 positions in the instructional area, though not necessarily classroom teachers. The compromise proposal includes no changes in school start times, as was proposed in one earlier option, but walking distances for middle schools and high schools would increase by one-half mile.

The district has cut spending in the last three budget years, but it's still deficit spending by using reserve funds to balance budgets. However, the reserves for 2013-14 would be down to 4.5 percent of the district's budget, money needed to operate the district for one month in an emergency, if spending cuts are not made.

In three options taken to the public in recent meetings, one plan would not affect classroom instruction, which is 80 percent of spending, but would cut large areas of other budgets. The second and third options would pare the number of teachers and support staff, but keep other district budgets at the current level or modestly increase two of them.

Regardless, the final budget recommendations were expected to include transportation cuts. Starting middle schools earlier and increasing walking distances have been discussed for two budget years.

The hybrid plan increases the walking distance for middle school students from 1 mile to 1 1/2 miles and high schools from 1 1/2 miles to 2 miles. Both distances are the minimum required by the Minnesota Department of Education.

When a suggestion was made two months ago to cut staffing as a major way to pare the budget, it got a cool reception from board members. But when the board looked at the whole budget picture under a new budgeting process introduced by Superintendent Keith Jacobus, the 'hybrid" solution gained support.

Under the new option, staffing would be cut by 22.5 positions across the district.

Staffing ratio doesn't equal class sizes, said Keith Ryskoski, assistant superintendent for secondary education. Licensed staff also includes band, art, reading specialists and physical education specialists, all of whom are responsible for student instruction.

Elementary school classes through third grade get state assistance to keep class sizes low and wouldn't be affected by the budget proposal, Ryskoski said.

It's a similar situation at the middle schools, where students are also instructed by literacy coaches, staff in the Gifted and Talented Program and other academic coordinators.

High schools have advance placement coordinators, literacy coaches and the Air Force Junior ROTC program. Band and gym classes are larger, giving principals latitude to have smaller classes in academic areas.

All grade levels have intervention specialists to help students.

"It's not what we'd like to be doing," Jacobus said, "but we have flexibility."

Board member Marsha Adou asked about the value of a policy of allowing one discretionary teacher per building, which was authorized under former Superintendent Tom Nelson.

The discretionary positions are on the "high value" list for teachers and administrators, Ryskoski said. If one class size is too high, another class can be added. Schools have also used the position to hire literacy and math specialists and social workers.

No cuts are being recommended in the activities budget, he said, because last year's rise in activity fees have taken up increased costs. Also, activities add value to education.

Adou wanted details about which positions would be cut.

By spring, the district will have more information about retirements and attrition so adjustments can be made, Jacobus said.

Classes such as art and music are not being eliminated, Ryskoski said.

Returning to the transportation proposal, Adou asked if keeping the walking distance at 1 1/2 miles for middle schools has been considered.

Secondary buses run in sequence, said Mike Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for operations. If you change one, the others need to change.

Adou said she was open to having parents pay a fee for busing. There was resistance to that idea when it was discussed last year, but the economy "was different," she said, adding that people would get used to it.

Vogel said a fee structure policy would be needed to serve students receiving free or reduced-price lunches. It's hard to calculate how much income would be generated, he said.

When the district researched charging for buses, the districts that tried it started and dropped it during the same year because it didn't bring in the projected income, said Barb Brown, district communications director.

When charging a fee for busing kids in Spanish Immersion, a choice program, was discussed, parents were planning to car pool instead, said board member David Kemper.

The hybrid budget proposal also calls for $375,000, including four positions, to be cut in the district budget.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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