Board will take public input on cuts

/ 10 March 2012 / jennifer

Derek Sullivan, Owatonna People’s Press, March 10, 2012 –

OWATONNA — A crowd numbering in the hundreds is expected when the Owatonna school board gathers Monday evening to consider, and perhaps vote upon, a budget-cutting proposal that would slash $1.8 million from the district’s budget for fiscal year 2013.

So large is the expected crowd — many of whom may be upset by some of the more controversial aspects of the proposal — that the school board has moved its meeting from the district office to the Owatonna Junior High School in order to accommodate the estimated number of people.

The time of the meeting was also moved from 6:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. because at 5:30 p.m., there will be a spring parent/athlete athletic meeting at the high school and the district wanted to make certain that parents could easily attend both meetings, if they so chose.

Monday’s meeting follows on the heels of a Feb. 27 school board meeting that about 100 residents attended to hear details about the budget cuts.

That number could double — or triple — Monday night. Several teachers have stated that the number of staff, students and concerned citizens at the meeting could reach or pass 500.

At the Feb. 27 meeting, more than a dozen area residents walked up to a microphone that had been placed in front of six Owatonna school board members, as well as school superintendent Dr. Tom Tapper, to voice their concerns about a budget-cutting proposal before the board.

The 35-page proposal, put together by district staff, is meant to cut $1.8 million from the school district’s budget, thereby minimizing deficit spending.

In order to cut $1.8 million from the 2013 budget, 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 would cut about $2 million from 2012’s budget.

One by one, residents at the February meeting complained about the proposal. They expressed worry about reducing graduation requirements for the English and social studies disciplines. Some reminded the board of Owatonna’s traditionally strong music program and asked them not to lay off a music teacher, as the proposal suggests. Most brought up the topic of switching the Owatonna High School school day from a four-period day to a six-period day — an idea brought up in the proposal, but not recommended for fall 2012. For more than 30 minutes, the public spoke.

Since that meeting, school board member Vicki Jensen has held two public forums about the proposals and has seen large crowds at both. Her meeting on Monday night at the Owatonna Public Library attracted such a large standing-room-only crowd that library officials didn’t feel comfortable releasing an attendance number, instead Owatonna Public Library Director Mary Kay Feltes simply said, “The room was at capacity.”

“The meetings were a huge success because what I was trying to do was communicate,” Jensen said. “Since I have been on the board, there hasn’t been an overall vision for the district. We need to get together and have a strategic planning session. I have been calling for it and asking for it since I have been on the board, and they just refuse to do it. If I am the only one who wants to do it, I can’t. I’m only 1/7th of the board.

“I wanted to hear from the community, especially after the failed referendum. We never went to the community and asked them why they were voting like they were voting. It seems like we just don’t do that. I don’t know why we don’t do that. It’s just wrong,” Jensen said. “I just wanted to talk to them and hear what their expectations are and what they expect from these budgets.”

It’s unknown how much effect the crowd will have on the board members’ votes. Board chair Don McCann was part of an ad-hoc community finance committee that made recommendations on how to cut $1.8 million from the budget. The committee did recommend staff cuts, but did not propose cutting the school year by eight days or reducing the graduation requirements in English or social studies.

Board vice-chair Bill Bernard praised the plan. He said he before looking at the proposal, he feared the teacher layoffs would be much larger than the 6.5 recommended.

According to the agenda, the board will, on Monday night, vote on lowering graduation requirements and decreasing the school year. Only four of the seven board members need to approve the recommendations, and the board chair and vice-chair have already publicly supported the proposal. So is it too late for concerned parents, teachers and students to speak up?

“I don’t think it’s ever too late,” Jensen said. “I think presenting things just to generate some discussion on the board is wonderful. We need to listen. If not, then what are we there for.

“I’m not going to just rubberstamp something because some people believe it’s too late to do anything else. That’s our fault as a board. We should have been doing something sooner and being involved from the beginning.”

While McCann did praise the work of Tapper and his staff at the last board meeting, he plans to listen to the public before voting on budget cuts.

“It is always important to get community input on any decision that’s related to changes or budget reductions that will impact the school district,” he said in an e-mail. “Also, it is always difficult when you are making any type of budget reductions.”

What may be the best-case scenario for proponents of the proposal would be a delay of a vote. On Feb. 27, Jensen did ask for a delay in order to set up a work session to go over the proposal, but her request was turned down.

While a delay would allow board members to meet and discuss other options, Tapper has let it be known that not approving the new school calendar could lead potentially to more layoffs.

“To have someone say, ‘Approve this or you’re going to have to cut six more teachers,’ well, they can say that, but it isn’t true. The board will decide on the budget cuts,” Jensen said.

Newly appointed board member K.J. Wall was not at the Feb. 27 meeting. He was with Jensen on March 3 when residents talked with the two board members at a public forum at Hy-Vee in Owatonna.

“I think (Wall) is doing great,” Jensen said. “I think he has the right intentions. He wants to do what’s right for the district.”

Derek Sullivan can be reached at 444-2372.