New round of Duluth school district budget cuts runs deep

/ 25 March 2012 / jennifer

Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune, March 25, 2012 –

The Duluth School Board last week approved $4 million in cuts that will affect parents, students and teachers across the district. Big-ticket cuts include restructuring the middle school day, increasing class sizes and cutting the special education budget. Most of the reductions include jobs.

Laura Sushoreba was happy to find the Duluth school district’s Kinder Korner program this year.

The two-hour block of preschool three days a week was the perfect way for her 5-year-old to socialize with other kids.

“It’s nice to have instruction from people who aren’t family,” Sushoreba said, noting that her son learns things at Kinder Korner she wouldn’t know to teach. “And my husband makes too much for Head Start, but some preschools are more than $100 a month, which is way beyond us.”

But because of cuts to the Duluth public schools’ budget, the 41-year-old program, a college-level high school lab class, will change. High school students will probably go out into community preschools to practice their skills and parents of young children will have to seek care elsewhere.

The cut to Kinder Korner’s support staff is one of $4 million approved last week that will affect parents, students and teachers across the district.

Big-ticket cuts include restructuring the middle school day, increasing class sizes and cutting the special education budget. Most of the reductions include jobs.

Superintendent Bill Gronseth said many details remain to work through, but he offered explanations for each approved cut.

Cuts to instruction

  • Changing the schedule at Ordean East and Lincoln Park middle schools from seven periods to six will require fewer teachers and save nearly $1.1 million. Each class period will be longer to maintain the length of the day. Duluth Federation of Teachers President Frank Wanner said union leaders will meet this week to talk about restructuring the day.
  • Cuts of $634,500 to the special education budget will mean restructuring the department to eliminate positions through attrition and layoffs, resulting in fewer administrative assistants and paraprofessionals, or teacher aides. It won’t affect special education class sizes. Last year, $1 million was cut from the then-$23 million special education budget.
  • Increasing classroom sizes by upping the student-teacher ratio will save an estimated $1 million. The increase will be affected by projected health-care costs for next year, Gronseth said, which the district will learn next week. Last year the district saved money because costs were lower than anticipated.

This year, student-teacher ratios are as follows for various grade levels: kindergarten through second grade, 26.9 to 1; third grade, 28.9 to 1; fourth and fifth grades, 29.9 to 1; sixth through eighth grades, 26.59 to 1; grades nine through 12, 28.31 to 1.

Those would tentatively be raised by .9 for next year for every classification except high school, which would be .89.

Increased class sizes are tough on students and teachers, Wanner said. At-risk students often struggle more with less attention and teachers sometimes reduce the number of assignments to manage their workloads. It’s hard on both student and teacher to develop bonds in classrooms with more than 45 students, Wanner said.

  • A reduction in administration costs to save $154,000 means elementary principals will take on additional work as hours are reduced for some district-level administrators. One position likely to lose hours is the federal programs coordinator, who deals with Title 1 money for low-income schools, gifted and talented education and other federally funded programs and grant applications.
  • The loss of two full-time-equivalent middle school music lesson positions will save $180,000. (The figure includes salary and benefits.) That means music lessons would no longer be offered at the middle schools. Gronseth is working with the University of Minnesota Duluth to find ways to continue offering lessons.
  • Eliminating the optional zero-hour for freshmen will save $90,000, or one teacher position. This year, 166 freshmen took before-school zero-hour courses, which include music, physical education and health. The traditional seventh hour was a victim of previous cuts. The state requires a six-period day.
  • Eliminating courses with small enrollments will save $180,000, which is two full-time teachers. Those courses haven’t been determined.
  • The district will save $126,000 because fewer students need intervention classes next year. Test scores district-wide showed 200 fewer students need special math courses and 100 fewer need special reading courses, Gronseth said.
  • Savings of $45,000, or half of a position, will come from changing how English as a second language is taught. Instead of busing students to one site, students will be taught at their home schools.

Cuts to learning services

  • One teacher position, or $90,000, will come from changing the model of intervention classes such as Read 180, which is for students with low reading scores. The block-style classes will have larger first sections and a smaller lab-like second section.

Cuts to business services

  • The district will save $180,000 by operating fewer buses; with the end of the Red Plan transportation transition period, students from one part of town no longer will have to be bused to a temporary school assignment in another part of town.
  • No longer having an attorney present at School Board meetings will save $6,300.
  • Restructuring the business department and not replacing a retiring employee will save $64,200.

Other program cuts

  • Habitat, a teen parent program, will seek some community support, saving the district $110,000. Though student parents will no longer be in the same school as their child (at Denfeld this year), partnerships are being sought in the community to offer child care. The district will continue to offer social services and transportation.

“It will be difficult for nursing mothers and moms who want to come and eat lunch with their kids,” said program director Deidre Quinlan. “We have always had moms who … chose (Denfeld or Central, where it was located for years) to be in the same building for their kids.”

The program, which offers child care and services to teen parents, serves between 14 to 24 students each year. It has become a perennial item on the budget-cut list.

  • Cuts to Kinder Korner save $18,000. While the course for students will remain, child care for families will not.

“I hope the district realizes we potentially enroll (up to 40) families into Duluth schools at the earliest possible stage,” said instructor Shonda Peller, who plans to work on a compromise. “There is definitely a loss.”

Peller’s preschool students come from Duluth, Superior, Proctor and Hermantown, and families pay $25 a month. Both Habitat and Kinder Korner moved to Denfeld from the Central High School site. Their new rooms at Denfeld were modified for their programs, but they can be used for other purposes, Gronseth said, and the furniture and casework bought through grants for the Habitat program could be used at a community-based child-care center.

One area considered but not recommended for cuts was employee health benefits. Gronseth said he wanted to wait until next year, when a new teacher contract is set to be negotiated. Union president Wanner said insurance costs already have gone up for employees since the change to a new plan two years ago, and savings to the district have been realized.

A lack of state education money and a failed operating levy have combined to force the school cuts, he said, and teachers feel the burden through more work and fewer resources.

“Is it fair to go to teachers and increase insurance costs, which would have a net effect of reducing salaries by 2 percent to 2.5 percent?” Wanner asked. “If a day care gets more kids, they make more money. A teacher, who has 10 to 20 more students in a class, they are paid nothing more, and we’re doing a good job. … The need for intervention in the district has dropped, and we’re making progress in a lot of areas. How can it possibly be fair … to ask them to work for less?”

Some School Board members have expressed frustration that insurance costs weren’t on the table when final cuts were decided.

“The conversations I’m having, people are saying they’d pay a little more to save their job,” member Judy Seliga Punyko said at a recent meeting. “It’s an alternative to layoffs.