School Board presents budget adjustments

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 10, 2001

"This meeting is the direct result of the state’s inadequate funding of public education," Austin Schools Superintendent Jim Hess said Monday night.

Tuesday, April 10, 2001

"This meeting is the direct result of the state’s inadequate funding of public education," Austin Schools Superintendent Jim Hess said Monday night.

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Although Hess believes the state is to blame, the fact remains the district is faced with an $800,000 shortfall for the 2001-2002 school year. Budget adjustments must be made in order to balance the already strained budget, so the district presented ideas for balancing in the Ellis Middle School commons to a crowd of teachers and concerned citizens. Loss seemed to be the key word of the day, as talk of losing teachers, privileges, programs and the district administration building were batted about between the members of the school board.

About $540,000 will be saved by the district staffing cuts, which is 68 percent of the total budget deficit. However, they are not across-the-board cuts per se. Instead, each school will be losing some teachers and gaining others, as a way to address the decrease of 85 enrollments throughout the district and the district’s class-size goals.

The district is proposing to reduce the teaching staff at Neveln and Banfield by one each.

Ellis Middle School will lose about seven teachers and paraprofessionals in total – in the areas of math, social studies, English, science, unified arts and physical education. They will gain a health-physical education teacher, one teacher and one paraprofessional within an Area Learning Center classroom and a part-time music teacher. Although these changes to Ellis will be difficult, Principal Jean McDermott said the class sizes still will average in alignment with the district’s goal of 26 students per class.

"On paper it looks good," McDermott said, "but in reality we’ll find out."

Austin High School will be dealing with its own set of cuts, according to the district’s plan. The school will lose a social studies and a science teacher and staffing will be reduced in the areas of health, agriculture, industrial technology and music. Part-time additions will be made in the areas of science and world languages. A grant no longer will cover part of the costs of a graphic arts teacher, so that amount will be picked up by the district. Concerned about the reduction in the funding for the agriculture program at the high school, outgoing teacher Christie Shook quoted several statistics to the board.

"I have 29 active FFA (Future Farmers of America) members," Shook said. "It is one of the top programs with the numbers." Shook said one student in her program is a regional FFA officer, who will lose her position if the agriculture program is cut. Three specialist teachers and the equivalent of 1.66 specialist paraprofessionals will be cut from the total staff at Woodson, Neveln, Banfield, Sumner, Southgate and Ellis. In addition, funding for the high-potential coordinator position will be eliminated. The current and outgoing high-potential coordinator, Teresa Becker-Ersland, addressed the board about the cut to her position.

"This position seems to be perceived as being expendable every year," Becker-Ersland gave as a reason the district cannot keep her position filled. She added a person in the position does not have any real authority. The board members acknowledged her concerns and agreed to discuss the matter further.

Becker-Ersland and Shook were two of several district employees who addressed the board. Austin Education Association President Bob Riege suggested several items for the board to consider. Riege cautioned the board against comparing themselves to other Big 9 schools in the specific area of class sizes, unless they plan to make the average school calendar and teacher pay comparable as well.

"I need to stress that we look for alternative cuts," Riege said. The alternative cut he was thinking of, he said, was something recently proposed in Duluth – a reduction in the superintendent’s salary by $18,000 per year.

"We need to advertise," Riege said. "We need to draw some people in. We need to make it so students have more to take here than in Lyle and Hayfield."

Riege’s stated his main concern, however, is the loss of teachers.

"If you put these people on unrequested leave, they will be gone," Riege said. "When you lose staff, you can never get them back."

In another budget proposal, the district is proposing to lease rather than sell the district administration building. The lease and utility savings would save the district nearly $100,000. Leasing is favorable to selling the building, Director of Business Services Lori Volz said, because the profit from selling would go into a capital budget fund rather than the general fund, where the deficit is. The staff at the administration building would move to the first floor of Austin High School, in a space that would not require remodeling, Hess said. As to just where that would be, Hess said the district is talking with Austin High School Principal Joe Brown about just how the high school would accommodate the move.

Other fund-raising proposals include charging increasing fees or finding more effective ways of collecting fees already in the budget. One proposal is to charge a $5 fee for adult admission to baseball and softball games and increasing the participation activity fee.

Brown has proposed collecting a $50 fee from each student at the time of registration. This amount will cover two identification badges, lockers and padlocks and lab fees. Brown said this amount is equivalent to what has been charged in the past, but collecting the amount once per registration will ensure the amount will be collected. Fees have not effectively been collected in the past, because of no set time and different fees for different lab classes.

The board will argue the merits of each budget cut at 5 p.m. today in the Ellis Middle School commons. Then the budget will be voted on, at times item by item, and the final list of budget adjustments will be complete.