English on the budget chopping block in Owatonna schools

/ 10 April 2012 / jennifer

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

OWATONNA — After two public forums and a study session, the Owatonna school board finally will vote for or against proposed budget cuts — and the ax may come down the heaviest on the district’s English departments.

The Owatonna school board will meet at 6:30 p.m.Wednesday at Owatonna Junior High School. There will be another public forum after a presentation on proposed budget cuts.

This year, the administrative staff, led by superintendent Tom Tapper, has been putting together a plan to save the Owatonna school district $1.8 million — an amount the district will need to cut from its budget to minimize deficit spending.

Along with the planned budget cuts, the district also plans to spend $1.98 million from its general fund. According to the district’s revenue and expenditure long range forecast, it also plans to cut $1.2 million in fiscal year 2014 and $1 million in fiscal year 2015, along with spending $2.1 million in FY 14 and $2.5 in FY 15 from the general fund.

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.

The school board already approved cutting graduation requirements in English from 5 credits to 4.5 on Feb. 27. During the meeting, Tapper said the cut had nothing to do with budget concerns, but was done in order to provide more flexibility to students.

Though that may be true, no department will be affected more by the budget cuts than the English department. In grades 7-12, 2.5 full-time equivalencies, or FTEs, will be placed on unrequested leaves of absence. The next closest department is physical education/health at 1.17 FTEs. Math, family and consumer science, social studies and French will also be cut, but none more than 10 hours a week.

Tapper said Tuesday that there are three reasons why English departments are going to be the hardest hit.

First, by cutting the graduation requirement for English, there should be fewer scheduled classes in the course. Therefore, the English department will be able to get by with less staff. Secondly, the district believes cutting English courses will balance course offerings for students. Finally, after looking at current class sizes, district officials believe they can cut out English courses and still keep class sizes small.

Owatonna Junior High School will eliminate the part-time dean of students position, along with an FTE in English. No other departments at OJHS will suffer cuts.

Other key cuts include 1 FTE from the music department and one counselor at the high school. By dropping from four OHS counselors to three, the counselor-to-student ratio will be nearly 500-to-1. Nationally, the ratio is one school counselor for every 250-300 students, according to district officials.

The district’s recommended cuts still need approval by the school board. The teachers’ union (Owatonna Education Association) will also play a big role. Though the union cannot fight the layoffs of probationary teachers (teachers in their first three years of service), it can vote down another district initiative.

District administrative staff would like to cut the 2012-2013 school year by six days in order to conduct staff development training. So far, the teachers have not been very receptive to more days out of the classroom. In 2011, the K-8 student calendar was reduced by three days for teacher training. In 2012, the OHS school year was cut by three days for staff development. If the 2012-2013 school year is reduced by six days, the members of the Class of 2015 will have lost 12 school days in three years.

The union has scheduled a vote on the reduced school year proposal for late Wednesday afternoon. The vote should be finished and results forwarded to district officials by the start of the school board meeting. Tapper said at a study session on March 28 that an approval of the new school calendar would mean fewer staff cuts.

The Owatonna school district receives state funds for conducting staff development. By holding the training sessions without classes in session, the district can save $220,000. The savings come from not hiring substitutes and not having to pay hourly workers as well as reduced energy consumption.

If the teachers vote no, the majority of the $220,000 goes away, and more staff members will be cut, said Tapper.

For example, anticipating a ‘No’ vote on the school reductions, district administrators added an additional 1.0 FTE cut at the elementary school level, erased OHS department coordinator positions and decided to cut an English/language arts position at OJHS. Tapper still believes the union either will vote against the reductions or will not conduct the vote before Wednesday’s meeting.

“I don’t expect (a ‘yes’ vote),” Tapper said. “I’m relatively certain they will not approve the modification to the school calendar.”

Along with staff cuts, Tapper and other district administrators will recommend cuts to the administration budget, the COMPASS program, district support services, vocational and special education instruction, community education services, instructional support services and also asked for an additional $22,500 from its athletic department.

“We not only looked at the classroom, but outside of the classroom as well,” Tapper said. “We felt that we kept most of the reductions away from the classroom.”