Board hears budget input

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 4, 2000

Some came with ideas and some with questions, but most residents of the Austin Public School District at Monday’s budget forum with the school board came forth with concerns regarding the current financial situation facing the schools.

Tuesday, April 04, 2000

Some came with ideas and some with questions, but most residents of the Austin Public School District at Monday’s budget forum with the school board came forth with concerns regarding the current financial situation facing the schools.

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The goal of the meeting was to provide information to residents and for the board and district administration to receive ideas on how to better the budget deficit, expected to be around $251,580 when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

"What we need to hear is what things you as consumers, as residents of the district, value. We need to know your priorities," Schools Superintendent Dr. James Hess said to begin the meeting. "We need to stop this pattern of overspending.

"We’ve looked at potential areas for reduction and met with staff at each level; we need to become creative when resources diminish. First and foremost, our concerns are the students and their needs," he continued.

Arnold Lang, who ran as a candidate for the school board last year, voiced his concern that it’s almost deja vu again and it’s time to start bringing the district to solvency.

"In order to make up any shortage, you have to cut positions and when you have to cut positions, you have to deal with people," he said. "Nobody wants to lose a job, but to me, good budgeting is a year-round activity."

If current staffing levels are kept for the next school year, the district could face a budget deficit in the neighborhood of $714,000. The district’s finance committee has to cut $1 million from the budget. Overstaffed according to ratios in place, the district needs to eliminate positions in order to keep solvent.

Lori Volz, director of management services, presented a preliminary analysis prepared to see where the district should make cuts in accordance with student-to-staff ratios that have been recommended by the administration. Many in attendance questioned the method in which the ratios were calculated, but Volz attempted to ease concerns, saying, "The student-to-staff ratios are not the same as class size. "The analysis does not tell us we need to cut these teachers, rather it gives us a look at where the district may be overstaffed according to the ratios in place," she added.

According to Hess, the ratio goals are set by administration from a staffing study used by many school districts. For instance, in grades 4-8, the target ratio is 26 students per staff member and in grades 9-12, the goal is 28 students to each staff member.

Volz said art, music and phys-ed instructors are included in the ratio calculations, while counselors, English-as-a-second-language and special-education instructors are not included.

According to the district information analysis, most buildings are overstaffed, causing the need for 27 to 35 positions need to be cut. In making a determination as to what areas would be targeted for cuts, building administration used the target ratios to determine where they saw an adjustment that could be made.

"Are the ratios used as a model for decision making as to cutting positions and making tough decisions?" Lang asked, to which an answer of "yes" was given.

"If we’re going to put this district in solvency, we’re going to have to cut positions," Lang continued. "You can’t tell us nicely about having to do this and that. We’re going to have to cut positions and we can’t get caught up in the hassles of special-interest pressures."

After detailing where the Austin Public School District is situated, Hess asked those in attendance for their ideas how spending can be reduced and what options residents would like to see used to cut overstaffed areas.

Many voiced their ideas that the board make an across-the-table reduction in spending, rather than settle, as one person put it, "for protection of others’ turf." Others such as JoAnne Rasmussen suggested to spread out the cuts over several years, a sentiment echoed by the Austin Education Association. The AEA has voiced their concerns that a $1 million reduction in a single year isn’t in the students’ or the district’s best interest.

Comments also centered on specific areas to be cut, such as the position of the high-potential coordinator, who oversees a program that has taken off in the past years. The concern voiced is that by eliminating the position, you lose the entire district program.

Several Austin High School students brought concerns about the loss of the Vo-Ag program. Sarah Davis asked directly: "Is there going to be an FFA program next year."

Board member Bev Nordby assured the students that a decision has yet to be made, but did say, "There are enough funds and enrollment for a half-time ag teacher."

Yet concerns and comments eventually came back to where the meeting started, as Rosalie Ivers, who recently moved back to the district with her family, said class size is the biggest concern for her.

"We looked at schools such as Blooming Prairie, where there are 15 students or less in the first grade, and Brownsdale, where they have 16 students and the highest class size is 22," she said. "We’re concerned abut the number of students in that first-grade class. Looking at the numbers, there will be over 22 in Austin.

"We want our teachers to be involved in the decision process. They can see where cuts can be made. If we let the people who do the work make the decisions, we can get there."

Lang acknowledged what the district presented at Monday’s meeting was an honorable task – admitting a shortfall – but said the finances need to be straightened out sooner rather than later.

"Once you inject an error in mathematics, it’s going to stay there. I know what they are going through but the decisions need to be made," Lang said. "It’s commendable that the board and superintendent brought this forward.

"It’s real easy when the coffers are full to make popular decisions. Now they’ll have to make unpopular, but courageous decisions," he said.