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Class sizes, bus changes affected by District 833 budget cuts

The District 833 School Board has signed off on $2 million in budget cuts for the 2013-14 school year.

The district plans to raise class sizes by an average of one student as it cuts 22.42 teaching positions, including some teaching specialists, to save $1.5 million.

The board also approved increasing walking distances at secondary schools. The middle school walking distance will increase from 1 mile to 1.5 miles. High school students living less than 2 miles from their building won't have busing; the current high school walking distance is 1.5 miles. Those walking changes will save $169,000 in busing costs.

Also among budget cuts was $375,000 in district operations, including cutting four full-time equivalent positions among district support service staff.

The board's action on Thursday, March 21, was preliminary; final approval of the budget for the next school year isn't due until June.

The budget cuts will slow the rate of deficit spending that has occurred over the past seven to 10 years, said Superintendent Keith Jacobus, but keep the district's fund balance at between 4 and 5 percent, which is within the board policy of maintaining reserves totaling 5 to 9 percent of the total district budget. That guarantees the district can pay one month's operation costs.

The district has reduced the budget 6.4 percent since 2009, Jacobus said, making it difficult to make deeper cuts in maintenance, building budgets and management without negatively affecting core district functions.

Cutting four positions in district operations, however, will help ease the number of teaching positions to be cut since the cost of instruction is 80 percent of spending.

There will be no instruction cuts in the area of classroom support, such as literacy, remediation, special education or gifted and talented services to students. Also, art, physical education and music will not face cuts.

There will also be no cuts in primary grades that receive additional state aid to keep low class sizes, according to Dave Bernhardson, assistant superintendent for elementary education.

At a community meeting two days before the budget was up for approval, approximately 20 parents whose children would be affected by increased walking distances at secondary schools asked Jacobus to make cuts in other areas so busing could continue. Several parents said busing to "choice" programs, such as Spanish immersion, should be ended.

Jane Christensen, one of about 20 people at the March 19 meeting, said her home is within the Woodbury High School attendance boundary. Her children are currently bused to school but would have to walk to Woodbury High if the walking distances are increased. She said it would be closer for them to walk to East Ridge High School. It's not that she would prefer her kids go to East Ridge but that the proposal is illogical, she said.

Most parents would drive their ninth-graders to school under the proposal, Christensen said, and that would cause a traffic jam.

The district should negotiate with utilities to have the cost of heating discounted, said Dave Bramlett, of Woodbury. "Then, our kids could ride a bus to school," he said. "You're making it hard for parents."

The governor's state budget plan for the next two years includes education funding increases that would give District 833 an additional $49 per student next year, if it passes, and $240 per student the following year.

The additional money for next year, about $800,000, would go toward the district's fund balance, according to Finance Director Aaron Bushberger,

But District 833 School Board member Marsha Adou said some of the money should be used to maintain current walking distances.

Other board members, except Jim Gelbmann who voted "no" on budget approval, said they liked the new budget process introduced by Jacobus. The process looks at service levels and all the departments at one time instead of discussing them individually.

The leadership training last fall was also helpful in getting the board prepared for a new process, said board Chairman Ron Kath.

Gelbmann, however, wants to return to the former system of reviewing each department separately. Gelbmann also opposes increasing class sizes. The classes with the lowest number of students will become the highest next year.

"The community wants low class sizes," he said.

Woodbury Middle School PTO President Molly Lutz told the board that school support organizations will continue to raise money to pay for what the district can't afford.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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