Feb. 5, 2007
Budget concerns put on the table
PTA forum attracted more than 300 attendees Monday
By Kristen Miller
Monday’s PTA-sponsored public forum drew quite a crowd as the audience asked questions and voiced concerns regarding the upcoming budget cuts.
The Dassel-Cokato School Board and administration were in attendance to educate the audience on the history of school financing and to answer questions concerning budget cuts.
The district’s business manager, Tina Palmer, gave a brief presentation explaining the school’s revenue and expenditures and why the district is facing such cuts.
Palmer explained that in 2003, the general education levy was replaced with state aid.
“The issue now is, it’s up to the legislature how much of an increase we will get each year,” Palmer said.
Education now has to fight for money along with roads and health care, she explained.
In the last two years, there has been a 4 percent increase, but prior to that, there was a three-year period with no increase in the general education formula, meaning the revenue has stayed the same, but the expenditures have grown.
“We had to make up for the years without increases,” Palmer said.
Palmer also estimated that even with the possible 2 percent increase in education from the governor’s proposal, by 2012, the district would be in statutory operating debt. This includes inflation and no operating levy.
Activities Director Perry Thinesen also presented the revenue and expenditure for DC athletics and activities.
Activities are 3.7 percent of the overall general fund. In the 2005-06 school year, there was $714,436 in expenditures and $157,427 in revenue.
Sixty-fiver percent of seventh through 12th graders participate in at least one activity, Perry explained, with 19 sports and 13 fine arts and activities.
In 2005-06, the activities did see $31,550 in cuts and a revenue increase of $20,000 which was 35 percent of the cuts that year.
Again this school year, activities cut $6,083 from its budget, which was 2 percent of the total cuts, according to Thinesen.
Sara Nelson presented on behalf of the teachers, describing the impact the cuts have on the student population.
Three common threads were shown including increased class sizes, decreased supply budget, and elimination of programs and electives at the high school.
State standards, changing the requirements for students district-wide, are also changing.
For example, every student is required to take biology. The numbers have gone from 250 a year to 250 a trimester, increasing the average class size from between 20-25 to 30-36, Nelson said.
According to Nelson, there are 42 fewer sections available in the high school for students, compared to three years ago.
This results in time lost in math, communications, industrial technology, art, foreign language, and the elimination of family and consumer science (home economics).
“This means we have far less options for a growing student population,” Nelson said.
The audience had the opportunity to ask questions animously on notes cards. Members of the forum’s subcommittee reviewed the questions for fairness and appropriateness.
Christian Sande, a Minneapolis-based lawyer, moderated the forum at no cost to the district.
An effort was made to have a neutral party conducting the question and answer portion of the forum, according to Mari Pokornowski, PTA chair.
The question was asked, “What is the board doing in preparation for the influx of class sizes for birth to age five?”
Superintendent Jeff Powers replied that the district is aware of the needs, and doing the best it can to plan for them.
With growing class sizes, the question arose, “Are the elementary schools at capacity, and is there space available for more classrooms?”
Both principals answered for their corresponding schools. Dassel Elementary Principal Karen Coblentz replied, “We do have a full building, but we could be creative and have another classroom.”
Lorene Force, Cokato Elementary principal had a similar answer, adding the possibility of team teaching if necessary.
Dahlman explained guidelines the board tries to follow regarding class sizes. Kindergarten through second grade class sizes should be 20 students or less, and high school class sizes vary depending on the subject.
After the meeting, Dahlman explained grades three through four should be between 24 and 25, students and middle school classes at 27. Currently, class sizes are pushing 30 students, according to Dahlman.
Several questions were asked regarding administration and staff salaries including, “Has the board considered salary and wage freezes on teacher contract negotiations?”
School board chair Kevin Dahlman answered the question, explaining that the board tries to give “fair and appropriate settlement,” all the while being fiscally fair to the district and the teachers. The object is to attract and retain teachers by being competitive with other districts, Dahlman said.
As far as condensing administration, “Everything is on the table and open for discussion. We will consider that among many other things,’ Dahlman said.
The question was also asked if any cuts were previously made to the salary of the former superintendent, and to higher administration.
Dahlman stated there was no severance package for the former superintendent, and the board did eliminate the assistant principal position, replacing it with the dean of students position to continue to operate safely and save some money.
A question was asked regarding cutting the full-time curriculum director position. Powers replied, saying it could be cut, but Karla Haider, curriculum director, “wears four hats,” and is in charge of curriculum, testing, the gifted and talented program, and staff development.
Employee benefits have changed in the past few years with health premiums rising and teachers have been asked to contribute a higher percentage of premiums, Dahlman said.
Some clarifying was made by Powers regarding paraprofessionals. Paras are tied to special education and paid for by Title 1 or the Individual Education Plan (IEP), with very few expenses coming out of the district’s budget, according to Powers.
The possiblity of increasing activity fees was asked of the board. Dahlman explained that it’s important to make activities affordable to all families of all income levels, but, like everything, it can and will be considered.
All-day alternating kindergarten was brought up to reduce busing costs and is something the board will consider.
As far as being fiscally responsible and being responsive to the needs of the community, Dahlman explained that the community should “feel good about how the school is spending” its money.
At the end of the question-and-answer portion, audience members were invited to approach the microphone to address concerns and give advice to the board.
One parent, Tina Schenk, addressed the board and audience explaining the importance of paraprofessionals. Paras offer an extra set of hands and help in the classroom, giving extra attention to children with learning and other types of disabilities.
Another parent addressed the board concerning technology. He works at Ridgewater, Hutchinson in technology, he said. His proposal was to not spend money for upgrading technology and software. “What we have will get us past the short-term budget cuts,” he said.
One parent suggested looking at the non-fixed costs, including utilities, and limiting the building usage to save on electricity.
Joel Latt, a discouraged parent, asked the board and administration not to use his son as a pawn to get a levy passed explaining he, being a single parent, has to watch his peanuts and the board members don’t have to watch theirs.
“My child is here to be educated, not to get what you want,” Latt said.
Bring it to St. Paul
Nancy Larson, a lobbyist and rural advocate, addressed the audience encouraging them to write or call their legislatures.
“It’s going to make a difference,” she said.
“You’re not the only district having these problems,” she said. It’s important to get out and go to the capital, she said.
The board met Saturday for a day retreat to discuss the information and suggestions received from the forum.
Preliminary decisions will be discussed at the school board meeting Monday, Feb. 12.
Questions and questionnaires received at the forum were collected and will be published and available from the PTA.