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CLOQUET SCHOOL BOARD: Board debates deficit spending

Cloquet School Board members got a budget update at their regular Monday meeting, and there were a lot more red numbers than they wanted to see.

Finance Director Candace Nelis informed the board that it looked like the Cloquet School District is likely going to spend $700,000 more than it will take in this year, up from an estimate of $500,000 in deficit spending noted in June. In June the deficit spending included any completed contract settlements, additional special education staff and health insurance increases for this year. The additional $200,000 included additional early childhood special education staff hired halfway through the year, four consistent support paraprofessionals, long-term substitute teacher costs because of medical leave by teachers and increases to homebound instruction costs.

Board member Ted Lammi expressed concern over the growing deficit in the General Fund, which is used to pay salaries, which affects class sizes.

“It doesn’t look good and it will involve some painful decisions,” Lammi said.

Superintendent Ken Scarbrough said the deficit can be covered by General Fund reserves, which are estimated at $5.35 million by June 30, 2017, down from over $6 million in June 2016.

“It’s a danger sign when you see that much red,” Scarbrough admitted, adding a few minutes later: “We do need to pay attention. Now we have a fund balance and the luxury of planning long term.”

“But it’s not sustainable,” noted Board Chair Duane Buytaert.

The board unanimously approved the revised school year 2016-17 revenues and expenditures as presented by Nelis.

While the growing budget shortfall cast a shadow over a discussion of staffing adjustments later in the meeting, board members (by a vote of 4-2 with Jim Crowley and Dave Battaglia voting no) chose not to cut the Dean of Students position at Washington Elementary School.

Board member Crowley wanted the position cut entirely, noting that it was only supposed to last for a year, while Battaglia wanted the district to try a half-time Dean position, especially since approximately 125 fifth-grade students will be moving to the new middle school.

Washington Principal Robbi Mondati said that teachers say having a person there to support them and proactively work with students whose discipline issues are growing helped make the classroom numbers “more manageable.”

“We’re seeing changed behavior when we can respond in a timely manner,” Mondati said.

After a very lengthy discussion with some board members going between two different half-time and the full-time proposal, board members Buytaert, Dan Danielson, Lammi and Nate Sandman voted to keep the Dean of Students position for at least one more year as it is now, a full-time position with duties split half and half between the Dean of Students and behavioral intervention teacher. One-fourth of the salary is reimbursed through a grant.

“I’ve seen firsthand the benefits of that position at Washington,” Buytaert said, noting that the two schools have different student behavior issues. “Having this position has helped some of those students take the right path and lessened the load on the teachers.”