By Ivan Raconteur
LESTER PRAIRIE, MN After considering input from residents, the Lester Prairie School Board voted to keep the kindergarten and pre-k programs as they are, rather than pursuing an all-day, every-other day model that had been considered as a budget-cutting measure.
The district is in the process of trying to cut $150,000 to $200,000 from the budget, to offset cuts in state aid.
Currently, the kindergarten program in Lester Prairie is half-days, every day.
High School Principal/Superintendent Mike McNulty said the proposed change would have saved the district about $13,000 annually in mid-day busing costs.
Concerns raised by residents during the March 16 school board meeting centered around the issue of parents needing to find other options and other transportation for their children on the days they would not be in class.
During Tuesday’s meeting, however, the focus changed to concerns about the inconsistency of the every-other day model, and the gaps of several days between class days that could result.
In the end, these concerns swayed the board.
After about 40 minutes of discussion, Board Chair Fred Blaser closed public comment on the question.
Board member Karla Heigl was the first to comment.
She noted that at the previous meeting, discussion had focused on busing, and said the board can’t make decisions based on convenience.
Heigl said she had thought more about the issue since the March 16 board meeting and had received input from parents.
“I think the inconsistency would be detrimental to their education,” Heigl said. “We can’t afford all-day, every day, but half-day every day provides consistency.”
Her remarks were met with a loud round of applause from the audience.
Board Member Rollie Radke agreed with Heigl, and said there are other ways to save money on busing, such as charging students for field trips, and taking one, rather than two buses to some games.
Board Member Joe Miller said all-day kindergarten would be his first preference, but with 28 or 30 students, the school is not able to do that in one section.
He said this might be a discussion the board needs to have in the future, especially if the number of kindergarten students drops to 24 or 26 (currently, there are 28).
Blaser said the board would have been negligent if it did not consider the all-day, every- other-day option.
He added that parents presented some valid points, and changed his mind on the subject.
The purpose of the meeting was to discuss budget cuts to offset a 27 percent shift in state funding.
Other budget-cutting measures that were discussed include:
• combining coaching positions for grades seven and eight.
• increasing fees for sports. For junior high students, Lester Prairie currently charges $50 per sport, with a maximum of $125 per family, per year. For senior high students, the fee is $80 per sport, with a maximum of $225 per family, per year.
McNulty will present options at the Monday, April 19 board meeting.
• cutting the school supply budget.
• combining cross country with another school.
• combining field trips.
• eliminating the one-act play ($1,000 to $1,200 savings).
• moving yearbook production into the classroom schedule.
• developing early retirement options for eligible teachers (three are currently eligible).
McNulty will present recommendations on some of these items during the Monday, April 19 board meeting.
In a related matter, the board approved an un-requested leave of absence for Spanish teacher Anne LeClaire for 0.16 full-time-equivalent of a teaching position, effective at the end of the 2009-10 school year due to the elimination of one Spanish class.
The board provided a grim outlook regarding the district’s financial future.
McNulty said next year will be relatively easy compared to what is ahead.
He said he will work with other schools in the area to discuss what can be done to preserve programs.
“I want to make the Lester Prairie community and the board aware that changes are coming,” McNulty said. “We are trying to find a way to make this work educationally, while the state and the country are suffering financially.”
Heigl said the district will need to continue to consider a four-day-week option that McNulty presented during the last board meeting.
McNulty said he will meet with superintendents from five other school districts in May to discuss the process of making the transition to a four-day week.
Miller provided an update on the legislative session. One concern that is shared by some schools, Miller said, is that even if the state wants to repay the money it has borrowed from school districts, it may not have the funds available to do so.
He said the state’s current deficit is $1 billion, but that things will continue to get worse, and the state’s projected deficit is $5 billion for the next biennium.
He added that while recovery from a recession usually takes two or three years, he has heard that the recovery from the current recession could be a 10-year process.
“School districts are telling the state to quit playing games,” Miller said.
He explained that some districts would rather have the state cut aid to schools and tell schools how much they were going to get, and then give them that amount, rather than promising one thing and delivering another.
Despite the budget concerns, the meeting ended on a somewhat positive note.
“We have a great school, we have to remember that. There are a lot of good things going on here,” resident Kelli Machemehl commented.
Heigl acknowledged the staff and administration, as well as the level of community support that the school receives, as evidenced by the success of the recent Bulldog Bash.
“The community wants to keep the school and see it thrive,” Heigl said.