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Teacher cuts, employee furloughs, program reductions among District 833's $8.5M budget-cutting proposal

A large crowd of District 833 bus drivers, staff and parents gather Thursday to hear a proposal to cut more than $8 million from the South Washington County Schools budget. (Bulletin photo by Scott Wente)

South Washington County Schools could eliminate dozens of classroom positions, slash some academic programs and seek employee furloughs as it looks to cut $8 million from next year’s budget.

Or, the district will avoid some of those cuts by tapping reserve funds that were going to be left untouched but quickly returned to the conversation when District 833 School Board members saw the stark budget picture.

And while a budget decision is months away, one proposal to cut an estimated $2 million already is off the table: Board members say they will not consider outsourcing student busing to a private company.

In a meeting room packed with district bus drivers, staff and parents, the School Board on Thursday reviewed the initial list of budget reductions totaling about $8.51 million.

Superintendent Keith Jacobus said the proposed cuts are “very heart-wrenching.”

“It takes away things for kids that we believe are good for our kids,” he said.

Budget details

Key elements of the proposal include:

  • Raising the staffing ratio by 1 at every grade level, cutting the equivalent of 25 positions.
  • Requiring all district staff to accept a two-day salary furlough, saving nearly $1.2 million. Furloughs would require negotiation with employee unions.
  • Eliminating world language at elementary schools, cutting 10 positions.
  • Ending band and orchestra at elementary schools, cutting 8.5 positions.
  • Reducing secondary staffing and special education staff by a total of 12 positions.
  • Cutting 11 positions in school support services, including administrators, nurses and other positions. High school parking lot security also would be cut.

Other savings would come from increasing athletic fees by $10 per activity and increasing the family cap; extending use of instructional computers by a year; capturing billing efficiencies; and making other program reductions.

“Nothing in this report is good,” Finance Director Dan Pyan said of the proposed cuts. “It’s a bad report and we just have to face it head on and see where we’re going to go from here.”

The budget discussion comes as the district anticipates its 2015-16 expenses to total about $197.4 million while revenue is estimated at about $189 million.

Jacobus said the shortfall is not unexpected, nor is it the result of financial mismanagement. The district has watched costs outpace revenue in recent years, and state aid has not kept up with inflation, he said.

When the district faced shortfalls in past years it generally chose to protect classroom instruction and other popular programs by relying on property tax revenue and reserve funds to balance its budgets.

After reviewing the initial recommendations, board members said they want to consider dipping into reserves again to avoid making some of the cuts.

“Being an accountant, I’m a little nervous about that but I think we should at least look at that,” Katy McElwee-Stevens said.

Doing so, however, would leave less than 5 percent of the district’s operating revenue in reserves. The board has had a standing policy of not letting the reserves fall below 5 percent.

‘No’ to bus outsourcing

A proposal to save an estimated $2 million by exploring privatization of student transportation drew strong opposition from bus drivers and ultimately was panned by the board. Similar suggestions have been turned down in past years, as the district’s drivers and staff have been lauded for their safety record.

Drivers warned that turning busing over to an outside contractor may not save money in the long run and creates safety concerns. They pledged to work with the board on other ways to save money in the transportation budget.

Jeff Boese, a Cottage Grove resident and district bus driver for a couple of years, said a large percentage of the drivers have indicated they would seek other employment rather than drive for a company.

“That wasn’t out of anger,” Boese said. “It was out of an emotional connection to this district.”

There are numerous variables that could alter the budget picture. They include changes to state aid that would be approved by the Legislature later this spring; unanticipated enrollment fluctuations, which affect state aid; and a levy increase the district is considering seeking from district voters this fall.

Administrators will return with a modified budget recommendation at the board’s Feb. 19 meeting. In the meantime, the district plans three public meetings to get input on the budget.

Pyan said budget-cutting decisions facing the district are not easy.

“It’s a lousy thing to have to do,” he said.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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