Owatonna school board approves cuts

/ 11 April 2012 / jennifer

Derek Sullivan, Owatonna People’s Press, April 11, 2012 –

OWATONNA — After a 40-minute discussion that included a motion by K.J. Wall to withdraw proposed staff cuts in the music and gifted and talented programs from the district’s proposals, five Owatonna school board members approved $1.8 million in budget cuts.

Board members Vilnis Giga and Vicky Jensen voted against the now-enacted budget cuts at a rare Wednesday night Owatonna school board meeting at Owatonna Junior High School. David Anderson, Bill Bernard, Jose Herrera, Don McCann and Wall voted for the budget cuts, proposed by district administrators and defended on by superintendent Tom Tapper.

Giga said he voted no because he wanted to take a closer look at withdrawing the proposed cut of 2.0 FTE (full-time equivalencies) from the elementary program. Tapper said during the meeting that if the board wanted to take something out, the elementary cut made the most sense. It’s believed that cutting the 2.0 FTE will greatly increase classes sizes.

Bernard also mentioned taking a look at the elementary cuts, but no one made a motion. Wall and Jensen both supported a motion to save music and gifted and talented staff members. Giga and Bernard said publicly that they worried about class sizes at elementary school levels. Those four would have been enough to save the 2.0 FTEs if a motion were offered.

Unlike previous school board meetings held this year at OJHS, the public forum was quiet. No one stepped forward to express concern before the vote.

Wall did make a motion to pull music and gifted and talented staff cuts out of the proposal. The 2.5 FTEs cuts dealing with music and gifted and talented would save the school district roughly $150,000. Wall questioned whether “the juice is worth the squeeze.”

“The music program has spoken,” Wall said during his sales pitch. “Music is one of the things that set Owatonna apart, and its educational benefits no one would argue.”

After the meeting, Wall said Owatonna’s music program was a key reason why he felt comfortable moving his family from Colorado four years ago.

“As I kept researching Owatonna, (its music program) kept appearing. It was one of the first things that stood out to me about the community: the support of music,” Wall said.

Tapper responded with a 10-minute rebuttal. He said he’s a strong supporter of the district’s music program. He does not see any structural changes to the district’s music program, just an increase in the number of students in out-of-class lessons. Now, those lessons normally consist of two or three students. With the reduction of 1.0 FTE, that number could range from four to six students. Tapper said during the meeting that he is still talking with music teachers on what the department will look like after the cut. So far, no plan has been agreed upon. No matter what happens, Tapper expects the music program to continue to be vibrant.

“The Owatonna music department will remain strong when compared to other Big Nine and state programs,” Tapper said.

Tapper added that the district’s upcoming implementation of inquiry and leadership programs will provide additional training for the district’s top students.

The board did vote on Wall’s motion, but it failed. Only Jensen and Wall voted for the motion.

“Honestly, I didn’t know what would happen,” Wall said. “I knew it would tough. You have to make the cuts, and all of these programs have merit.

“Like I have said all along, I’m trying to make the best decision I can with the information I’ve got.”

Tapper added the $194,000 in budget cuts into his most recent, and eventually approved, proposal because the Owatonna teachers’ union failed to approve a plan to reduce the school year by six days. Jensen asked if the funds could be returned to the general fund. Tapper said that funds were not available for any reason other than upcoming staff training on STEM, leadership and inquiry.

Jensen withdrew her motion before a vote.

Both Tapper and Bernard said publicly that if something was going to be taken out of the proposal, it should staff cuts at the elementary level. However, there was no motion or vote on saving the staff cuts at the K-6 level.

After the vote was taken, the public was once again offered a chance to comment. While McCann asked that the comments not deal with budget concerns, three residents did ask questions or comment about the cuts.

Cindy Hokanson, mother of two students in the district, said she was very disappointed with the superintendent’s and board’s action.

“I feel like I’ve been lied to,” Hokanson said. “I feel misled. Maybe I’m the only one here, but I’ve very disappointed that only two members of this school board have spoken out and shared the worries of this community.”

Hokanson questioned Tapper’s comments at a Feb. 27 school board meeting that dropped the English graduation requirement from 5 to 4.5 credits. Tapper said at the time that the reduction was to allow more flexibility for students and not because of budget concerns. In the approved proposal, district English teachers were the hardest hit, with 2.5 FTE being let go.

The approval proposal includes staff cuts totaling 12.5 FTE (full-time equivalencies) in areas of teachers and counselors. In addition, 5 FTEs were cut in the area of educational assistants. Also cut was 1.0 FTE in the area of custodial services.

While the cuts will be felt, Giga, a long-time Owatonna educator and school board member, said the reductions are not a severe as previous years.

“Tonight is not as tough as it was for everybody back in 1982,” Giga said. “That was the most devastating year in Owatonna. The cuts pale in significance, at least so far, as that year.”

Derek Sullivan can be reached at 444-2372.