Board tinkers with budget-cutting measures

/ 12 March 2012 / jennifer

Derek Sullivan, Owatonna People’s Press, March 12, 2012 –

Hundreds of district residents attended Monday’s meeting of the Owatonna school board, with many opting to share their thoughts on proposed budget cuts under consideration by the board. (Derek Sullivan/People’s Press)

OWATONNA — Owatonna school superintendent Tom Tapper and the Owatonna school board made some modifications to the budget cut proposal that Tapper shared with the board two weeks ago.

The changes came during a school board meeting that had been moved to the Owatonna Junior High School cafeteria to accommodate the large crowd. More than 300 people showed up to see if the board would approve proposals to cut staff, eliminate programs and reduce the Owatonna school year.

More than 30 residents shared concerns, with most focusing on cuts to the Owatonna school district music department — Tapper recommended cutting one full-time employee — and the elimination of the gifted and talented program. Residents all ages and backgrounds spoke to the school board, and eight current students praised the district’s gifted and talented program.

Part of the administration’s proposal was a call to eliminate 2.5 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff members from the program. Tapper has said he believes the district’s implementation of an inquiry program will be able to replace the current gifted and talented program. He found few followers Monday night.

Another dozen residents praised the school’s music program. Students, parents and music fans worried that cutting the music staff would harm the school’s musical tradition.

After listening to the public for an hour, Tapper said he would no longer ask the board members to vote on the cuts on March 26, as they were originally scheduled to do. Instead, on March 26, the school board will conduct a work session and, then, vote on personnel decisions on April 9. Though that doesn’t automatically save the gifted and talented program or keep the music staff at current levels, it does give school board members more time to look at the cuts.

The limited time frame was another common complaint. Many of those who spoke Monday night wondered why the school board had been asked to act just two weeks after receiving the administration’s recommendations.

The administration’s 35-page proposal, put together by district staff and first presented to the public on Feb. 27, is meant to cut $1.8 million from the school district’s budget, thereby minimizing deficit spending.

In the proposal, Tapper recommended that the board lay off 6.5 full-time equivalent teaching positions and 14 district-wide specialists. He also recommended reducing the 2012-2013 school year by eight days, with those days becoming staff development days. Tapper said that the training will be necessary with the district adding new initiatives, such as STEM at McKinley, K-8 Explorations and an inquiry program. In all, his proposal could cut about $2 million from 2012’s budget.

On top of cutting $1.8 million from the budget, the district also borrowed $8.1 million this year to cover cash flow needs through the summer.

On Monday night, Tapper addressed those in attendance before the public input portion of the meeting. The superintendent spoke for an hour, attempting to answer questions that have flooded his e-mail in the past two weeks. He defended STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) in the elementary schools and Options in the high school. He talked about the importance of COMPASS, a program that puts teachers on special assignment with the idea of bettering students’ learning experiences. He also talked about the rumors of new schedule at the high school.

Currently, Owatonna High School students take four periods a day for a semester. This allows students to earn eight credits a year. Tapper’s recommendation, handed out two weeks ago, talked about abandoning the four-period day.

Board chair Don McCann said the switch has been discussed, but would not take place this fall. Tapper also talked about failed levies and referendums, and showed graphs portraying a gloomy economic future for the district.

Then he sat next to McCann as resident after resident questioned the proposal that he and his staff put together. After 29 people questioned the district’s future, Jim Herzog, former OHS principal, came to Tapper’s and the board’s defense.

On Monday night, the school board did approve a reduction in graduation requirements in the social studies and English departments, despite a call from current Owatonna boys golf coach and former teacher Keith Bangs that the board table the vote and wait until more information can be gathered and reviewed. During the voting, some members of the crowd shouted, “Table.” Despite Bangs’ request, the vote took place.

Instead of five credits in English, Owatonna High School students will now only need 4.5 credits to graduate. Instead of four credits in social studies, OHS students will now need only 3.5. OHS is still half a credit above the state mandate in English and is now at the state mandated level in social studies.

Owatonna school board member Vicki Jensen voted against the reduction in social studies requirements. She also fought to keep English from dropping from five credits to four, and got support from fellow board member Bill Bernard, who referenced a letter he received from OHS English teacher Doug Wanous. A decision was made to drop the graduation requirement from five to 4.5, instead of the four credits that was recommended by Tapper during his presentation on Feb. 27.

Tapper also said the reductions would not save the district any money, noting that it was done to allow students more flexibility in picking courses.

The school board also decided against reducing the school year by eight days, from 176 to 168. Tapper said the change was for the 2012-2013 school year only. The reduction in days was to allow additional time for staff development as the school district implements several new programs, including K-8 Explorations, Leader in Me and STEM at McKinley and E-STEM at Owatonna Junior High School. The school district receives funds from the state for staff development and a new law now allows the district to move some of the staff development money into the general fund. By reducing the school year, the district would also save money on busing, food costs and hourly wages. The administration said the reduction would save the district about $120,000 and allow it to move $200,000 into the general fund.

School board member K.J. Wall pointed out on several occasions that the administration’s proposal could save the district $2 million and that only $1.8 million needed to be cut. He argued that the district could keep the current calendar, make the other cuts and still come close to $1.8 million savings.

Tapper said the $2 million number included a freeze in spending for the remainder of this school year and the projected savings of a freeze was unsure. He also said staff training with students in school would require teachers to leave their classrooms and be replaced by paid substitutes.

The school board still decided against the eight-day reduction and went with six instead. The drop in two days will increase the number of staff layoffs by another 1.5 full-time employees.

The board approved a six-day reduction by a vote of 5-2. Wall and Jensen, the only two school board members to meet with residents in public forums last weekend, opposed the new school calendar.

The reduction still needs to be approved by the teachers’ union, the Owatonna Education Association.

Derek Sullivan can be reached at 444-2372.