Proposed school budget cuts covered at tense meeting
It didn’t take long to learn that the meeting last Wednesday night to discuss proposed cuts to the school district’s budget was going to be contentious.
As Superintendent Tim Collins showed a list of proposed staffing cuts throughout each building, one audience member remarked, “You’re not telling us the whole story. That list tells the public absolutely nothing.”
For 2.5 hours, Collins, principals and school board chair Vince O’Brien delivered the sobering news and answered questions.
The district is planning cuts totaling $1.5 million to balance its budget for the 2014-15 school year. In all, the equivalent of 17 full-time positions will be eliminated.School officials say the cuts are warranted because the district is facing a decline in enrollment.
Collins met with district principals and the finance committee of the school board on Tuesday to discuss the cuts. A work session with the entire school board is Wednedsay night. It is possible that the school board will vote on the reductions at their next meeting on Wednesday, April 23.
The case for cuts
Collins started the meeting by going over some relatively grim news about enrollment in Hastings schools. In 2004-05, there were 5,118 students in the district. By 2019-20, it is projected that there will be 4,157, a loss of nearly 1,000 students.
“There’s just fewer and fewer kids in Hastings being born,” Collins said.
Collins said that 80 percent of the school districts in Minnesota are facing enrollment declines. Even the parochial schools in the area (St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. John’s and St. Mathias) have seen a decline from 578 in 2003 to 456 in 2013, a decrease of 22 percent. Those numbers are a bit skewed, as St. Mathias closed in 2011. During its final year of operation, there were 23 students at St. Mathias.
Collins said that there are 300 students enrolled in kindergarten at Hastings public schools this year. There are about 260 enrolled for kindergarten next year.
Since the district receives about $8,000 per student, that reduction of 40 students means a loss of revenue to the district of $320,000.
Assuming the average kindergarten class has about 20 students in it, the district could in theory cut two kindergarten teachers. That, though, is just $120,000 in savings, Collins said.
That leaves a $200,000 shortfall.
“It’s very difficult to keep up with the cuts when you are losing students at that rate,” he said.
In all, the district is projecting to lose about 35 to 40 students from this year to next.
At the beginning of the school year, the district had a reserve of $13.6 million.
Collins said that last spring, the district made $800,000 in cuts. Even with those cuts, the district overspent this year by $1.6 million.
That leaves the savings account with a balance of about $12 million. It sounds like a lot of money, but it could evaporate quickly, he told residents at the meeting.
If the district doesn’t make these cuts for 2014-15, and if enrollment projects remain accurate, the district will then face an even bigger deficit.
Costs to run the district increase by about $1 million a year, which would put the district’s deficit at around $4 million by the 2015-16 year.
Within three years, the district would have no savings left.
“If the board does nothing over the next three years, we will be in a hole,” Collins said.
The district’s unassigned general fund budget in 2014 is $47.57 million. That $1 million estimated annual increase in expenses is about a two percent increase.
Schools across the state depend on funding from the State of Minnesota. This year, the legislature is considering an increase in per pupil funding of about $50 per student.
That would mean an additional $226,000 in funding for the district, but certainly wouldn’t cover the shortfall.
Last year, the legislature did pass a bill that would allow the school district to go to voters and ask for more money, but that bill was passed after the district had already decided to ask voters to renew the 2005 levy.
Voters passed that renewal in the fall 56 percent to 44 percent. That 44 percent figure made it clear to the district that it was a good thing they didn’t revise their original plan and ask voters for more money.
“Forty-four percent (of the voters) said, ‘I don’t even want to continue at the current rate,’” Collins said.
Asking for more money would have been a big gamble – if the measure would have failed, Collins said, the district would have lost $4.2 million in additional funding for 2014. That would have meant the cuts for 2014-15 would be much more significant.
Three principals addressed the audience about specific cuts at their schools during last week’s public meeting.
Here is more information on what they told the audience.
Matt Esterby, the principal at McAuliffe Elementary, address the cuts at the elementary school level.
The media specialist at each building site (Kennedy, McAuliffe and Pinecrest) will be cut.
“As we look at both our current enrollment and incoming enrollment numbers, we are looking at going from a five-day rotation (music, PE, art, computer and media) schedule to a four-day rotation (music, PE, art and computer),” Esterby wrote in a follow-up email. “The lessons taught during media are expected to be taught by classroom teachers during reading and writing.”
He said that one member of the secretarial staff at each location will be cut, too.
“This ends up being the secretary in the media center at each site,” Esterby wrote. “Our office secretaries will be picking up hours in the media center to help manage and maintain that resource. The computer technician will also be working on media management.”
The proposal is for the school day at the middle school to go from seven classes a day to six.
That would be more efficient, Principal Mark Zuzek said, because students would be in front of teachers more. Therefore, fewer teachers would be necessary.
There would be no more study halls at the middle school level.
“We want our students in front of teachers,” Collins said.
Due to the changes, about half of the students would be in more physical education courses every week, and about half would be in less. That would just depend on the elective courses they choose to take (like band, orchestra and choir).
In a follow-up email after the meeting, Zuzek explained those changes like this:
“How much time children have physical education will depend on two factors: how much music the child (family) chooses, and how much additional time the child needs to be in a language class to improve their reading achievement. Teachers will decide which students need additional reading and language support. Music classes also will be on a three-day rotation, so the time that students spend in their band, orchestra or choir classes will be reduced by one third. Students will be able to choose to be in two performance classes each year.”
The time each student has in language arts and reading classes would increase.
For fifth-graders, the class “You in the middle” would be cut. It helps students transition from elementary school to middle school. The topics covered in that class would be taught by other fifth grade teachers. Also for fifth-graders, social studies students would meet every other day instead of every day.
For sixth-graders, science classes would meet every other day instead of every day. That would be offset, Zuzek said, by longer class periods of science in fifth, seventh and eighth grade. He said students will have more science instruction with three years of classes that are 56 minutes in length than four years of classes that are 48 minutes in length.
Also for seventh- and eighth-graders, family/consumer science, technical education and art would meet 30 times per trimester instead of 60.
Lastly, there would be no foreign language instruction for eighth-graders. There are four sections of Spanish taught to about 120 students and there is one section of French for about 20 students.
This cut would mean that there would be no foreign language instruction until ninth grade in the district.
One resident in attendance questioned that move, saying that we live in a “global world” where second languages are becoming increasingly important. Most schools, Zuzek said, start teaching foreign languages in eighth grade or earlier. He said that “not many” begin in ninth grade.
If the move to a six-period day is not made, Collins said that the average class size would go up by three students.
Mike Johnson, the principal at Hastings High School, then talked about the changes coming to high school students. He’s seen the enrollment there decline from 1,855 students to 1,497 and said he’s no stranger to making cuts.
A resident in the crowd asked Johnson if he considered cutting the number of administrators at the high school. In addition to Johnson, there are three assistant principals. Johnson, though, said that the principals play a vital role and handle about 2,800 discipline referrals a year.
“We feel like we’re not at a point of doing that,” he said in answer to the question.
Johnson said that most of the reductions at the high school will result in the average class size going from 28.0 to 29.5 students per class.
“With staff retirements and resignations, we were able to balance this year’s reductions with those from previous years,” he wrote in a follow-up email. “As a result, not every department saw an increase in class size this year. The HHS summer school program will reduce staff as well and use technology and a digital curriculum to become more efficient. We will be increasing the number of students that we serve at our Hastings Area Learning Center to bring in more revenue to the school district. Over the years there have been reductions made when necessary to activities and fine arts.”
Among the cuts this year are the elimination of the 9B teams for volleyball, baseball and football.
“The school district will continue to offer a full ninth grade schedule in these sports but will reduce the budget for 9B games,” Johnson wrote. “These games may continue if they can be scheduled at a reduced cost or with the support of booster clubs. Lastly, the high school supply budget will be reduced.”
The school board
School board chair Vince O’Brien then addressed the crowd. He said the board has worked hard in the past 10 years to thin out the district office staff through attrition.
When someone leaves, the district has generally been consolidating their work, he said.
There are no cuts to the district office in this proposal, he said.
“We are looking at making budget reductions in the district office as we go forward,” he said.
A topic that came up a few times during the meeting was whether or not Hastings would continue to need three elementary schools.
Residents asked about rumors they’ve heard regarding what would happen down the road. Specifically, they’d heard that Kennedy Elementary School could be closed. Fourth-graders would then be moved to the middle school and eighth-graders would move to the high school.
O’Brien said the school board has not talked about that topic yet.
“No committee or board meeting has ever discussed (that),” he said. “There is a possibility that that will be something that will be discussed in the future.”
The district appeared to address the situation in a slide shown at the meeting called “Where do we go from here?”
The slide shows the projected enrollment of 4,240 by 2018. Just next to that is the capacity for each of the five schools in the district. The total capacity of the five buildings is 5,325.
The capacity without Kennedy, the smallest of the three elementary schools, would be 4,775.