Public questions remedies to district budget woes

/ 28 February 2012 / jennifer

Derek Sullivan , Owatonna People’s Press, February 28, 2012 –

OWATONNA — While district administrators and school board members discussed changes for the upcoming school year during an Owatonna school board meeting Monday night, the thing that seemed to be on the minds of those in attendance — teachers, students and residents — was a switch that won’t even take place until September 2013, if even then.

On Monday at Owatonna Junior High School, the school board held a public forum and offered residents a chance to speak about proposals to alleviate district budget concerns.

For the past month, the administrative staff, led by superintendent Tom Tapper, has been putting together a plan to save the Owatonna school district $1.8 million. The 35-page plan, which will need approval by the school board, was placed on the district’s website last Thursday.

The school district’s budget concerns are due to rising expenditures and the loss of federal funds. Currently, the state only releases 60 percent of funds to a district at the beginning of the school year. A year later, the state releases the remaining 40 percent. For Owatonna, the 40 percent is roughly $14 million. To stay afloat, in fiscal year 2013, the district will need to cut $1.8 million from its budget to minimize deficit spending. Along with the planned budget cuts, the district also plans to spend nearly $2 million from its general fund. According to the district’s long-range revenue and expenditure forecast, the district 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 million in FY 15 from the general fund.

In order to cut $1.8 million for 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 decreasing 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 next year’s budget.

But when the public was invited to speak, most residents wanted to talk about a single paragraph on page 18 of Tapper’s 35-page proposal.

“With the projected need for further reductions, the prospect of increased class sizes throughout all levels of the school is highly probable, as is the further loss of upper level electives. The current structure of the senior high four-period day will likely not be sustainable. The number of extra-curricular activities will need to be curtailed,” the paragraph reads.

Currently, Owatonna High School allows its students to take four classes during the first semester and four classes during the second semester. This allows each student a chance to collect eight credits a year and up to 32 while at OHS.

One by one, attendees at the meeting walked up to the microphone and asked about a rumor that in 2013, OHS would go to six-period day. Under that schedule, students would take six year-long classes. In one year, students could earn six credits and 24 credits during four years at OHS.

Both Tapper and school board chair Don McCann said a new schedule is not part of the proposal and the switch definitely will not happen this fall.

“Did we talk about some of those things? Absolutely,” McCann said. “But at this time, we are just not taking any action.”

Stating publicly that the district is sticking with the four-period day this fall didn’t slow down the questions.

“The six-period day is a big issue,” Lori Weisenburger said. “It’s in the streets. It’s in my e-mail. I have eight e-mails right now, and yet, I’m told it’s not on the agenda and not up for consideration.

“I would encourage you to make it more public and help us understand what it means, when it’s coming, when we should care about it, and how we can influence your decision.”

Owatonna ninth-grader Hannah Valen already is worried about what OHS will look like when she’s a junior.

“I know it’s not coming for two years, but I will still be here when it does,” she said. “All of the freshmen and sophomores will still be here.

“Our reputation at Owatonna is music. If we go to a six-period day, we can’t take two music classes and a foreign language with all of our requirements. I was in the musical, and I’m in band and choir, and if I have to give one of those up, I’m not going to be happy about it.”

She added that she and her friends are worried about being able to take high-level math and science classes that can only be taken now because students will “double up” to get prerequisites out of the way as underclassmen.

During his presentation to the school board, Tapper mentioned that even the idea of eliminating the 12th grade was discussed. Although that idea didn’t make it into the administration’s proposal, another proposal — cutting the English graduation requirement from five credits to four and the social studies graduation requirement from four credits to 3.5 — did.

OHS math teacher Mara Thiele started her speech by reminding the board that Owatonna’s motto is a world-class education. She then said that dropping graduation requirements to state standards means we no longer offer a world-class education, but a standard education.

She also believes that the switch in graduation requirements will lead to six-period day.

“One of the things Tapper said he looked at was the elimination of the 12th grade,” Thiele said. “Quite honestly, if you switch from a four-period day to a six-period day, you are eliminating the 12th grade.”

Most of the school board members supported the plan and praised the hard work of the district staff. K.J. Wall was not at the meeting.

Vicki Jensen did ask several questions. She voiced concerns over reducing the graduation requirements for English and social studies and the plan to decrease the school year by eight days. At one point, Jensen asked for more time to go over Tapper’s proposal. Her request was denied, and the school board will still vote on cutting graduation requirements and decreasing the school year on March 12. Two weeks later, the board will vote on the reduction in district staff.

In order to hear more questions and concerns from area residents, Jensen will be at the Owatonna Library from 7 to 9 p.m. on Monday.

“All school board members are welcome to join me and answer questions,” Jensen said. “I want to hear from the community.”

Tapper hopes the recommendations will make Owatonna schools stronger, even with the cuts.

“We just want to come out of this stronger, more lean and meeting our students’ needs,” he said.

Derek Sullivan can be reached at 444-2372.