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Parents weigh in on District 833 budget cuts

Dan Pyan, finance director for District 833, reads some of the comments posted by parents and other attendees during a “Community Conversation” Feb. 4 at Park High School. The meeting was one of three “Community Conversations” to get public feedback on the cuts. (Bulletin photo by William Loeffler)

Parents had a message for School District 833 leaders: Don’t shortchange our kids when it comes to reading.

Attendees voiced a variety of concerns at a Feb. 4 public meeting at Park High School, where the district administrators shared the plan to close a projected $8 million budget deficit for the 2015-16 school year.

Recommendations include the elimination of band, orchestra and world language programs at elementary schools and reductions in elementary and secondary staffing, special education and school support services, including administrators and nurses.

But the reduction that seemed to provoke the most concern at last week’s meeting was the rollback of reading recovery services in the elementary schools.

“As a group, we’re concerned about the cuts that impact students directly, particularly the reading and recovery reduction for elementary schools,” said parent Chris Reckinger of Cottage Grove. “Reading is essential.”

Also in the group was Anne Miller of Woodbury, who has two children at Bailey Elementary School. She has a child in band and would be sorry to see it go, she said, but reading must take precedent.

“The band you can pick up later,” Miller said. “Reading, if you don’t pick that up at an early age, that affects a kid their whole school life.”

The public hearing was one of three “Community Conversations” organized by the District at each of the three high schools. Constructive rather than confrontational, the nearly 80 people who attended included district teachers and students, parents of students and at least one grandparent.

After viewing a presentation of the proposed cuts by Finance Director Dan Pyan, district administrators took “clarifying questions” from the audience. Attendees then broke up into discussion groups to discuss the cuts that concerned them the most.

Brian Boothe, director of professional development and accountability for the district, encouraged them to distill their most pressing concerns by writing “impact statements” on Post-It notes. The notes were affixed to posters with the headings of “Secondary,” “Other,” “School Support” and “Transportation.”

The poster marked “Elementary” received the most Post-Its, however.

If all the proposals were enacted, it could result in the elimination of at least 61 jobs, including teachers, positions in school support services, administrators, nurses, secondary staffing and special education.

The budget discussion comes as the district anticipates its 2015-16 expenses to total about $197.4 million while revenue is estimated at about $189 million. The money the district receives from the state has lagged behind the rate of inflation, Pyan said.

Other key parts of the budget-balancing plan include raising the staffing ratio by 1 at every grade level, which would cut the equivalent of 25 positions; a mandatory two-day furlough for all staff; increasing athletic fees by $10 per activity and increasing the family cap; and extending use of instructional computers by a year.

Furloughs would require negotiation with employee unions.

To balance the budget in recent years, the district has drawn on its “rainy day” reserve fund, which has dwindled from $19.7 million in 2012 to $8.8 million. The district would rather not tap into the remaining funds, Superintendent Keith Jacobus said. Doing so would leave less than 5 percent of the district’s operating revenue in reserves. The board has had a standing policy of not letting the reserves fall below 5 percent.

“I think we have a very difficult time ahead of us this spring,” Jacobus said. “But we have amazing talent in the district, and I think we can get through it together.”

The budget picture will also be influenced by pending changes to state aid that would be approved by the Legislature later this spring; unanticipated enrollment fluctuations, which affect state aid; and a levy increase the district is considering seeking from district voters this fall.

Administrators will present a modified budget recommendation at the School Board’s Feb. 19 meeting.

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

(651) 459-3435
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