School officials explain curriculum cutbacks

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 22, 2003

Anger and frustration were evident from approximately 100 parents and citizens voicing concerns at the Parent-Teacher Council (PTC) meeting Wednesday night.

Recent district cuts to elementary school programs prompted the meeting, which took place at the Oak Park Mall Community Center.

The main complaint from the crowd was the cuts to specialist positions -- music, art and physical education. Kindergartners in particular will be affected, losing all of their time with the specialist teachers.

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The Austin School Board voted on the cuts at its May 8 special meeting, eliminating positions in those areas to make room for regular classroom teachers and to save money in advance of budget cuts from the state.

Joan Boe was in tears as she asked officials not to cut art for the kindergartners.

She said art was her way to excel in school when she struggled in other classes. She does not want her 4-year-old daughter to miss out on the classes.

"I wasn't great at math," she said after the meeting. "In science, I was OK, but art was my passion. You can't take that away from the kindergartners, when their minds are so fresh."

She said imagination needs to be fostered at a young age.

"We have skyscrapers because some little kid wanted big buildings," she said.

Tianna Crane, a 15-year-old student at Austin High School said music important to intellectual development.

"Some of the most brilliant, amazing people have been so involved with those programs," she said.

She said the musicians in Austin perform at a very high level.

"How are they going to reach these levels if they can't get it at an early age?" she said.

Educational Services Director Sheila Berger was at the meeting. She said the district expects at least $300,000 less than is necessary to maintain services. Even with the cuts, they have only made up for about $185,000 of that sum. Further cuts are on hold until the final numbers come back from the state legislature.

She came with other administration officials to talk with the parents. With her were Southgate Principal Daniel Posthumas, Sumner Principal Kim Howard and Human Resources Director Chris Picha.

They said overcrowding in the fourth- and fifth-grade classes necessitated the elimination of the specialists.

"We came up with the best plan we thought we could," Posthumas said. "The fourth and fifth grade classes were bursting at the seams."

Some parents thought the district should have left next year's fifth-grade classes large to preserve the programs, but the most popular solutions were cutting positions in administration or taking money from extra-curricular activities.

Nancy Dolphin, an elementary music specialist at Neveln, said the principals were given the option of smaller class sizes or losing programs. She thought there were more options.

"There are cuts that could be made further away from the children," she said.

A point that kept coming up was why teachers and parents were not consulted before cuts were made. Parents asked that they be involved with the process in the future if more cuts are necessary. Administration officials could not say that would happen.

Parents are organizing to try to influence officials at all levels. A list with the names, phone numbers and email addresses of council members, state legislators and Gov. Tim Pawlenty was handed out at the meeting.

They formed a committee to get the word out in local media through letters to the editor, started petitions for each school and are working on a speech to give at the next school board meeting.

Boe talked of another possibility for frustrated parents.

"The private schools in this town are going to find themselves very busy next year," she said.

Matt Merritt can be reached at 434-2214 or by email at