UPDATED - Carlton School Board brainstorms on school financesIn the wake of protests of potential layoffs, the Carlton School Board invites community input on coming up with four different plans to submit to the state to resolve the district’s debt.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal, Pine Journal
School bus driver Dave Niemi came to Tuesday’s Carlton School Board finance committee meeting Tuesday with two things on his mind. First, he wanted to get the whole truth – not rumors or half truths – about the district’s proposed budget cuts. Second, he came to show support, hoping that Tuesday’s audience would quit the finger pointing and work with the school board and the district’s new superintendent, Peter Haapala.
For the most part, he got his second wish. The mood was certainly more conciliatory Tuesday, and most folks seemed to be focused on the business of saving the school district rather than crucifying the board. In fact, Superintendent Peter Haapala – in only his second day on the job – even got a partial standing ovation at one point.
As for budget cuts, there were no final answers at Tuesday’s meeting. Of course, the Carlton School District’s financial problems did not happen overnight either.
During 2009, the Carlton School District was one of five public schools in the state of Minnesota operating under Statutory Operating Debt (SOD). That trend continued in 2010. Under Minnesota law, all districts exceeding a 2.5 percent fund balance deficit are placed in SOD. Though schools in SOD don’t have to close, they must follow certain spending rules aimed at improving their fiscal standing.
Because the district failed to adjust its last SOD plan after an April referendum failed, now the state is asking the district to formulate four different plans for dealing with its debt.
After explaining the state’s requirements and district finance numbers, the board opened up Tuesday’s meeting to the 200-some community members present to brainstorm ideas to help the district improve its finances.
Residents, teachers and others stepped forward with their own ideas for ways the district could reduce spending and increase revenue. People discussed going to a four-day week, which could save the district an estimated $60,000 to $80,000 per year. Other ideas included creating an online school to attract more students, applying for more grants, adding certificate classes and/or strategically increasing some class sizes to allow teachers to offer other options instead of teaching a smaller section of an already existing class.
Much of the talk centered on the proposed November referendum and how community members can work together to get this one passed, unlike the referendum that failed in April. That was a two-part referendum: the first question asked voters to extend the current excess levy, while the second question (which would only apply if the first were passed) would have added approximately $83.31 on a home valued at $100,000. Both failed, by a brutally close vote of 433-418. There are approximately 2,500 registered voters in the district and about 600 students.
“The only way a referendum gets passed is when parents have this dynamic, this energy, and you convince people to vote,” said Karen Johnson. “And you have to convince people now, not in November. What we need is the number of people we have here, going house to house.”
Long-time district teacher Mary Lee Henriques stood up and pointed toward the significant number of students present in the audience.
“Kids, sign up for the (referendum) committee,” she said, “because you’ve got the legs to go from house to house.”
Haapala encouraged the audience members’ determination to save the school district, but he also made sure folks understood the board is required by the state to make plans for every contingency, even the worst one.
Making matters worse, last Thursday’s school board vote tabling a proposal to lay off two full-time teachers and reduce the hours of 10 others actually increased the estimated statutory operating debt by more than $80,000. By the end of 2010, instead of being $685,000 in the red, the district will be just over $768,000 in the hole if no actions are taken, said Randy Schmitz, school board chairman.
“If you have to make a reduction of almost one-fifth the total of your budget, the biggest part of that reduction has to come out of the biggest expense (staff),” Haapala said. “We have to have a realistic plan. There’s no way to avoid it.”
While those plans were supposed to be sent to the state this week for approval by June 15, Haapala said he would e-mail the Minnesota Department of Education and ask for an extension of that deadline.
In the meantime, he and the board members have to hammer out four plans. The first, Plan A, will detail how much the November referendum will ask for and what the district will do if the referendum passes. Plan B will detail what actions the district will take if the referendum fails. Plan B-1 will describe district actions (staff reductions, etc.) in case the referendum fails AND student numbers go down. And Plan C is supposed to tell the state at what point the district will begin the process of dissolving itself or consolidating with another school district, and specifics where the students would go in that event.
Even once the plans are drafted and sent to the state, the board will not be compelled to make any cuts until after the November referendum.
If that fails, however, they won’t be allowed to simply not make the cuts.
“The state will be monitoring you,” said Cindy Olson of the Arrowhead Regional Computing Consortium, which advises school districts on finance and technology. “If the referendum fails and you don’t make the cuts, I assume the state will cut your aid and that would be the end of your district.”
There were at least 200 people in the small gymnasium at Carlton High School Tuesday night determined to make sure the state won’t have to make that call.