School calendar at heart of budget debate

/ 18 April 2012 / jennifer

John Gessner, Sun ThisWeek, April 18, 2012 –

District 191 looks for millions in savings

Randy Clegg

A shortened school calendar with longer school days is front and center in the debate over proposed budget cuts in Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District 191.

The administration’s proposed 2012-13 budget is based on a calendar that cuts school days from 172 to 155 and adds 36 minutes to each day.

Though some Minnesota school districts have gone to four-day weeks to save money, calendar proposals in District 191 are unlike any other school calendars in the state, said Lisa Rider, executive director of business services.

Two are being considered. One spreads many of the nonschool days across the year, mostly on Mondays, and would eliminate what is now the last week of school, ending the year in May.

The other would eliminate the last week of May and the first week of June from the school calendar, while concentrating remaining nonschool days mostly in blocks of two or three throughout the year.

Changing the school calendar may prove controversial, but administrators say it came up through a budget-development process that involved 18 district administrators, input from 130 staffers and more than 200 anonymous staff suggestions submitted through the district’s website.

“This is exactly what we asked people to come forward with — out-of-the-box thinking, creative thinking,” Rider told the School Board at an April 12 workshop, a week after the budget proposal was unveiled.

Public-comment sessions on the budget began Wednesday (April 18) at 7 p.m. at the Burnsville High School Senior Campus at Diamondhead Education Center.

Sessions will also be held Thursday, April 26, at 7 p.m. at Rahn Elementary in Eagan, and Tuesday, May 1, at 7 p.m. at Savage City Hall.

$6 million reduction

The modified calendar would save $776,000 in a package of reductions totaling about $6 million.

The proposed 2012-13 budget is $108 million, but would have been about $114 million if costs were simply carried forward, Rider said.

The proposal cuts slightly more than $2 million from the current budget of $110 million.

Faced with years of stagnant state funding, little prospect for sizeable increases and declining enrollment, the district is eying nearly $14 million in savings over the next three budgets.

With costs continuing to rise by $3 million to $3.5 million annually, current spending is “unsustainable,” Superintendent Randy Clegg said.

The proposed 2012-13 budget would claim a total of 26 full-time positions among teachers, administrators, clerical and custodial staff and educational assistants, Clegg said.

It includes free full-day kindergarten (to be funded through compensatory funding tied to low-income students) and maintains the current  average elementary  class sizes, according to the district.

The budget would increase walking distances for elementary students from one mile to 1.5.

It calls for a 5 percent cut in funding for sports in grades nine through 12 and no cut for nonsports cocurricular activities.

It remains to be seen whether, and how much, board members will dip into general-fund reserves to cushion the cuts.

Projections show a $9.9 million unassigned fund balance in 2012-13. That’s about 9 percent of the general fund. District policy says the district will maintain an 8 percent balance. The board in past years has frequently waived the policy and dipped into reserves to cushion budget cuts.

The policy is waived “almost every year,” Board Chair Ron Hill said. “That is not a number that is locked in anywhere.”

The district has restored its fund balances to an “all-time high” in recent years, said Hill, who seemed to be leading the charge for a discussion of tapping the fund balance next year.

“The community absolutely will, and rightly so, have a hard time accepting any reduction” in district services, Hill said.

Modified calendar

The extra 36 minutes are within teachers’ contracted eight-hour days.

Cost savings come largely from transportation, utilities, custodial services and a reduction in substitute-teacher hours.

The district would maintain the same number of instructional hours.

“The real rationale to do this is because you get cost savings, quickly,” Clegg said.

But there can be other benefits, he said.

Districts with modified calendars show less absenteeism among students and staff, he said.

Professional development and curriculum work would no longer interfere with the school day. The district would eliminate its five late-start professional days, Clegg said.

Drawbacks include he greater consequence of a student missing a day of school, Clegg said. Some children may have a hard time adjusting to a longer school day. Teachers may have trouble in pacing their instruction to fit the new calendar.

Community Education and the district’s secondary Area Learning Center are considering programs to offer students on the nonstudent days, Clegg said. A mentorship program with local businesses is one possibility.

“This could open up the door for a lot of different opportunities,” he said.

Chris Lindholm, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, stressed the research-proven importance of teachers working together, outside the classroom, to improve student performance.

The nonstudent days would be “17 days when teachers are working together as collaborative teams,” he said.

Clegg said that in Colorado, 34 percent of school districts have four-day calendars.

“Modified academic calendars are not new. They’ve been around literally for 40 years,” starting as a response to the 1970s energy crisis, Clegg said.