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Board debates staffing changes for next school year

The Cloquet High School madrigals choir sings at Monday's school board meeting. The board voted against a possible cut to music hours at Washington Elementary School during the subsequent meeting. Jana Peterson/

Monday's Cloquet School Board meeting opened with a performance by the madrigal choir, singing a cappella Christmas carols and other songs as they stood in front of various images of sunsets or sunrises, created by fellow Cloquet students.

It was a fitting start to a meeting that featured extensive debate over the balance of music versus art classes in the school district, and particularly at Washington Elementary School.

It was a discussion that began at the board's Dec. 12 meeting, when the board first saw a list of faculty considerations for the 2017-18 school year. It continued Monday, when the board took action on the various recommendations.

The new Cloquet Middle School is slated to open next year, and the fifth-grade classes are being shifted to CMS. Because of the student shift, a number of staffing changes were proposed, including a possible change that would add art classes but at the expense of music at Washington that drew passionate argument from both sides.

Principal Robbi Mondati gave the board two options for the next school year:

1. Keep the schedule as it is currently, with students on an eight-day cycle going to 25 minutes of music six days out of eight plus one extended 50-minute period for art class in that eight-day period; or

2. Change the schedule to give the students equal time: four days of music and four days of art (25 minute periods).

While former music teacher Sandy Crowley argued passionately against more cuts to the school district's music program after the elimination of the orchestra program six years ago and other cuts at the December meeting, on Monday Washington art teacher Andrea Cacek gave a presentation to the board on state arts standards and the "local elementary arts landscape."

Cacek noted that the state has required school districts to offer two (of four) arts areas to elementary students, and that each student "will understand and use the artistic processes to create, perform and interpret artworks" in those two areas. They must be taught these arts by a "highly qualified" teacher and meet certain state standards of artistic literacy.

The state dictates similar teaching standards for both music and art, she said, but students at both of Cloquet's elementary schools get significantly more time in music, a total 15,750 minutes by the end of fourth grade for music, versus 5,250 minutes for art. It is difficult to meet all the standards for art when she only gets to see students for 50 minutes every other week, Cacek said.

She also shared charts listing the school district's various art teachers in recent years, and how long they taught at each school. (Cacek has taught at both elementary schools.) Turnover is higher with the half-time positions, she said.

"How do you develop a program, how do you meet those standards, how do you require two arts areas when you can't even keep people in a building?" she said.

Washington music teacher Katy Buytaert also addressed the board briefly during the open forum section of the meeting.

She pointed out that sixth-grade music and seventh- and eighth-grade orchestra had all been cut in the past decade.

"What am I supposed to do, rip out every third day of my plans?" she asked the board members. "Churchill will remain intact. Other departments in my building are remaining intact; some are even being added to to keep their staff full time. We (music) are performing arts in the elementary schools. Elementary music is the feeder program for our band and choir. Band and choir are not required at the in seventh and eighth grade here, so it's possible that a sixth-grade student may have their last music experience then."

During the December meeting, Crowley had surmised that if the music teacher at Washington loses a third of her contact hours with students, the thing that would be eliminated is the music programs.

Mondati, who missed the December meeting, said she did not have a personal recommendation, but thought it was important to at least review and discuss the distribution of arts at Washington and decide if it was the right fit for the kids.

"I didn't want this to be decisive or morph into music versus art," she said, also expressing worry that a cut in the art teacher's hours could lead to turnover and affect the long-term health of the program. She also pointed out that doing art projects as part of regular class was not the same as getting art instruction from a qualified teacher.

Churchill Principal Dave Wangen said he didn't want to change the arts balance at Churchill at this time. He noted that Cloquet is often envied by other school districts for its "phenomenal" specialist teachers in art, music and physical education.

"Our kids get a broad and really consistent perspective on the arts and phy ed," he said, "often more than other school districts. We're lucky to have what we have."

In the end, after much discussion, the board voted unanimously to keep the ratio of music and art the same at Washington, which will also keep the two elementary schools with the same ratio.

"But let's not wait another 18 years to look at this again," said board member Dave Battaglia, adding that he would like to see a more equitable balance between music, art and physical education.

On the subject of PE, board members also approved adding up to 2.6 new physical education/health teacher positions to the middle school next year. Cloquet Middle School Principal Tom Brenner explained that the PE classes have been larger because of a lack of facilities at the existing middle school, so he wants to right-size the classes. The board approved a total of 5.6 physical education/health teachers at CMS (a gain of 2.6) and reduced PE by .225 at Churchill and no changes at Washington except Kindergarten will get more PE and one of the teachers will handle the adaptive phy ed classes.

In general, the shift of the fifth grade means a reduction in specialist teacher hours at both elementary schools and an increase at the middle school.

Following is a list of other staffing changes approved by the school board Monday:

• Staff eight sections of fifth grade at CMS and remove from the elementary schools.

• Move one DCD/SP (Developmentally Cognitive Delayed/Severe and Profound category) classroom from Churchill to CMS (leaving one at Churchill).

• Add one additional (new) special education position at CMS.

• Move a half-time speech teacher from Washington to CMS.

• Increase music staffing at CMS by .8 FTE and art staffing by .6 FTE.

• Reduce Churchill music by .3 FTE (leaving one full-time teacher there).

• Staff Washington with 1.5 full-time music teachers and a half-time art teacher, a reduction for art from .7 FTE.

• The board also approved a new assistant principal position at CMS and the elimination of the .4 Dean of Students position there, with the understanding that they would look at possibly also eliminating the Dean position at Washington created last year. Board member Jim Crowley voted no, after arguing that the assistant principal at the high school should help with middle school duties.

"This is a money problem," he said. "We don't have enough. We need to watch what we spend. ... We can't keep saying 'yes.'"