Stillwater school board OKs $6.4 million in budget cuts

Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press, March 8, 2012 –

Community members and high school students listened to the discussion as the Stillwater school board met to make a final decision about $6.5 million in cuts to the 2012-13 budget at Stillwater City Hall on Thursday, March 8, 2012. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)

 

Parents, students and even a few toddlers packed a Stillwater school board meeting Thursday night as its members unanimously approved $6.4 million in budget cuts for next year.

The reductions were deemed necessary because voters defeated three separate tax requests in November. The cuts include lost programs, staff positions and transportation changes, as well as increased fees.

“This is a painful process,” board member Mike Ptacek told the frustrated parents. “We are all in a position that we don’t want to be in.”

The cuts are a temporary reprieve of sorts. District officials told voters last year they would be forced to slash $10 million if tax requests on the November ballot didn’t pass.

Months after the levy defeats,

Colin Peters, a ninth-grader and the student body president at Stillwater Junior High School, spoke at the Stillwater school board meeting Thursday. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)

the needed cuts have shrunk by $3.6 million. School leaders, including Superintendent Corey Lunn, said the changes were the result of some belt-tightening, a small carryover from last year’s budget and a clearer financial picture from the state.Despite the good news, the drastic difference has been hard for some community members.

“We can’t repeat that mistake again,” school board president George Dierberger told his fellow board members before the meeting.

Board members are weighing whether to put another tax request to voters. A decision is expected in the coming weeks.

Ray Queener, assistant superintendent for business and administrative services, said the district has “long-term fiscal challenges.” Without more funding, the

district faces $8.5 million in cuts in 2013 and an additional $14 million in 2014.The projected funding gaps would mean cuts to popular programs like free all-day kindergarten and elementary music education.

Roughly half the crowd of about 100 residents came to the meeting to show support for Stonebridge Elementary School. Under the planned cuts, the school would stop receiving additional funding that helps pay for two dozen “paraprofessionals,” or classroom aides.

Stonebridge parents fear losing those staff members will hurt the K-6 school’s “colony model” of open, multiple-grade classrooms. The paraprofessionals keep student-to-staff ratios low.

Given the tight budget, the district can’t afford to continue providing additional money beyond what other schools get, Dierberger said. Each year, Stonebridge received as much as $100,000 more than other elementary schools.

“We’ve been over-funding that model for years,” he said. “We can’t support it anymore to the level we have been supporting it.”

Some Stonebridge parents said they felt the board came to decisions about their school without listening to their input. They said district officials don’t understand how important Stonebridge’s paraprofessionals and their contributions to the school’s unique learning model are to parents.

“I feel like there are discussions going on in private. What moved me was the behind-closed-doors way the decisions are being made,” said Amy Burback, a parent working as a paraprofessional at Stonebridge.

Christopher Magan can be reached at 651-228-5557. Follow him attwitter.com/cmaganPiPress.

Read our blog: Ahead of the Class at http://blogs.twincities.com/education.

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