Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal, May 22, 2000

Consolidation back into discussions for Lester Prairie school

By Jane Otto

Parents, staff, and district residents crammed into the Lester Prairie School media center last Monday night to see what the future may hold for their small, independent school district.

When faced with a $225,000 budget deficit, the board set a goal of $150,000 in cuts at its April 3 meeting to be made this spring. Cuts in staff, special education, and paraprofessionals have created a downward spiral for the district in the public eye.

Concerned parents flocked to last Monday's meeting. In voices often choked with emotion, parents expressed worry over an unhealthy budget, a shrinking special education program, a declining enrollment, how possible cuts may affect curriculum quality, and in this mix of things, how to create growth for the district.

"Seventy-three percent of the school districts in the state are making cuts," said board member Gene Starke. "Fifty-two percent are making more cuts than we are.

Lester Praire needs to cut 4.5 percent from its budget. Becker is cutting 8.1 percent and Morris 9.5 percent, Starke added.

"It's our legislature that's making problems. They are constantly giving us special things to do and no funding to do it," he said.

"Becker can cut 20 percent and still have more than us," replied board member Barry Kyllo.

"Are we going to hold our kids hostage for the next 10 years? I've look at Dassel-Cokato, Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City, and Watertown-Mayer. We pale in comparison. If you put students and opportunities first, rather than control (of a district), you might open minds a little bit," said Kyllo.

Open minds are what parent and local business owner Peg Rathkamp wanted. She said that she cannot settle for second best for her children. Two board members, she said, are willing to look at other options; maybe this will wake up the others.

A frustrated board chair Chester Hoernemann said that, apparently, not the right people came to the planning meetings last year. At those meetings, which Prudence Gushwa of Minnesota State University directed, the community expressed a desire to stay independent.

However, where the money would come from to accomplish what was being planned was never discussed.

Money and budgets were now on the minds of those present. Last fall, the district passed an excess levy referendum so the school could maintain, but now it faces a shortfall.

Several times it was asked, "Where does the money go?"

Supt. James Redfield said that the accountant goes over the budget each month, but that, maybe, it needs to be addressed at board meetings more often.

"Somebody has to know where our money is going and when it's going to run out," commented one parent.

The special education program was another concern to those present. The board recently cut one full-time special education teacher and five paraprofessionals.

One parent said her child required one-on-one assistance the entire school day. She asked what would happen to the other children's needs who are in her son's classroom if the school had a shortage of aides.

Hoernemann explained that those positions may have been cut, but some positions will be reinstated in the fall, with fewer hours.

Earlier in the meeting, Redfield said that recent legislative changes will garner another $13,500 for special education, which may help somewhat with the shortfall.

Having a child with special needs and taking into consideration the shrunken program, one parent said she may need to open enroll her child to another school.

Another parent voiced concern over open enrollment. She said that she had heard if five students open enroll to Watertown-Mayer, that district would send a bus here to pick them up. That, she said, would be devastating to the district.

Contacted later by the Journal, Watertown-Mayer Supt. Harvey Kraabel said the district may have considered sending a bus to Winsted for the open enrollment students there.

Kraabel said a Lester Prairie resident recently called the Watertown-Mayer middle school principal inquiring about a bus going to Lester Prairie. As of now, he said, there is no such bus and he doesn't know of any students from Lester Prairie interested in attending Watertown-Mayer.

Discussion over students leaving the district and comments about the board not willing to look at options hit a chord with board member Nancy Krull.

"I am looking to the future. I have a kindergartner and a third grader. If you need to send your child to another school, that's your choice. But if you all turn and run, this school will fail. Give us this chance to get through this year," said Krull.

Starke agreed, "I think everyone in this community has to give, in order to survive. Next year, we'll stand by ourselves, and then as a board we'll take a look at what other options we can go to.

"We've made mistakes in the past and hopefully we can look at those mistakes and become a better school district by our mistakes. There is a future out there for this school district, be it with somebody or by ourselves."

Starke said that without direction of the board, he has talked to other districts all along. There is an avenue open to every school district around us in the area, he said.

"We need to look at other options soon, before the door will close. I can see now that we can't stand alone. If we wait too long, the state will come and say 'give me the key,'" said Al Enger, former Lester Prairie School Board member.

Parent Shelia Jilek asked if a timeline should be put on looking at consolidation with other districts.

"We are holding out okay this year, but what will happen in years to come? We, as voters, are asking the board to look at other options and not just sit around and wait until the state shuts us down. I grew up here and went to school here, too," said Jilek.

"The first thing we can do is send letters to every district; look at all the schools," said Krull. She reminded the audience that when it comes to voting on consolidation "we are just a small voice in the vote."

Parent Marc Sebora asked if the issue of consolidation would be on next month's agenda.

Krull said that the board is always talking about the future.

Sebora asked the question again. Hoernemann replied that it would be on the agenda in June.


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