Faribault School board goes from $1.3M to $400K in cuts

/ 13 March 2012 / jennifer

Allison Roorda, Faribault Daily News, March 13, 2012 –

After a harsh list of cuts from the Faribault Public School Board last week — a list that included reducing physical ed, music and art time at the elementary schools as well as eliminating the Auto Services course at the high school — board members came up with the possibility of a total number that might be less painful for the schools.

Utilizing funds from the Designated for Separation/Retirement Benefits Fund and by decreasing the amount of cuts needed for the General Fund Balance, the school board came up with a goal of $400,000 in cuts rather than the initially projected $1,300,000.

The two sources of decreased cuts come from first of all the fund balance.

“The fund balance is basically the dollar amounts that we theoretically have,” said Todd Sesker, superintendent. “We use that to dictate how much we have in savings.”

Last year, the school district ended with a fund balance of 11.2 percent. According to district policy, the district would ideally have a fund balance around 9 percent. The cuts of $1.3 million would equal the fund balance out to equal that ideal 9 percent. James Wolf, treasurer of the board, recommended shooting for a lower number for the budget cuts this year to make it more manageable.

“The issue is are we only kicking the can down the road?” Wolf said. “If we can pass a referendum or levy, the answer is no. I think we’ve been very fiscally responsible. We can’t operate at that level and achieve what we want to achieve.”

In addition for shooting for a smaller gap in the fund balance, Wolf also suggested dipping into the Separation/Retirement Benefits Fund. The fund consists of money put aside by the district every year for staff retirements. Currently, the district has $2.5 million in the fund, aiming for a total of $6 million. The board agreed to use $549,000 of that money to offset the cuts, under the understanding that the money could only be used one time, not added to the yearly budget for the district.

“I would never pull money from that account unless you’re passing a levy in the fall,” Sesker said to the board.

The issue of a levy was tossed around a few times during the three hours the board heard from community members and discussed among themselves what they wanted to keep on the list of cuts. Community members came in groups to defend their favorite programs, slated for possible cuts on the initial list of $1.3 million in cuts. Among the programs with high numbers of followers were the River Bend Nature Center cooperation with the elementary schools, NATEF/AYES Auto Services/Ford AAA course at the high school, kindergarten teachers advocating all-day kindergarten and elementary specialists, such as physical education, music and art.

Bruce Meyer of Owatonna Ford was one of at least 10 community members who spoke on behalf of the Auto Services course at the high school. Meyer said the course enabled him to be sure those who graduated with the Auto Services under their belt were qualified for their field.

Graduates of the course were also quick to speak up, saying how the program helped jump start their education beyond high school. Tony Thompson, a 1987 graduate of the program, said one of the highlights was seeing the more recent graduates of the program from Faribault.

“When I’m looking to hire an assembly tech, this is the kind of class I look for in their background,” Thompson said. “Not just the service of an auto but the service of all things that can be fixed or repaired is taught in this class. We’d just like to have your consideration to keep this program.”

Staff and volunteers from the River Bend Nature Center also came to the meeting to defend their program. The elementary students in kindergarten through sixth grade go to the River Bend Nature Center twice each school year as part of the science curriculum.

“The time spent at River Bend is more than just a trip, it’s part of their science curriculum,” said Mike Johnson, president of RBNC. “We’re lucky to have this. Our students develop observation skills and learn to use scientific tools.”

“This is a perfect example of having those hands-on science experiences that will help our students learn the scientific method and maybe improve their scores,” said Barbara Caldwell, director of RBNC. “I would hate for our kids to not have that science experience.”

With the adjustments that board members made to the budget expectations, the school board once again went through the list of budget adjustments line by line.

“My suggestion is, as we look at this document, we look at it with an eye toward $400,000,” said board chair Jason Engbrecht.

The board took the River Bend Nature Center program and the cuts to the specialists at the elementary schools off the list of cuts, along with many of the proposed cuts to high school FTEs in various subjects. But some items were kept on the list with the understanding that the board will be discussing them in greater detail at the next board meeting. Among the items that are getting a second look are first-grade paraprofessionals, three literacy coaches at the elementary schools and the Auto Services course at the high school.

“It’s a gem of Faribault,” Engbrecht said. “But it’s really hard to justify a class for $33,000 for nine kids.”

The school board’s next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, March 20 at 5:30 p.m. at the District Office.

— Allison Roorda covers education in Rice County. Reach her at 333-3132. To see more comments from last night’s school board meeting, follow her on Twitter.com @AllisonRoorda