Barnum School Board votes to hire new high school principal

Barnum school board members voted 4-2 in favor of hiring a new high school principal at their Tuesday meeting this week. The decision was not as straightforward as it otherwise might have been, however.

Barnum school board members voted 4-2 in favor of hiring a new high school principal at their Tuesday meeting this week. The decision was not as straightforward as it otherwise might have been, however.

When Barnum High School Principal Steve Brandt announced his pending retirement at the end of the school year, board members took the opportunity to discuss the possibility of saving money by not rehiring for the position.

Board Chair Patrick Poirier, who cast one of the two dissenting votes, explained that since current Elementary Principal Tom Cawcutt Jr. has his licensure for kindergarten through 12th grade, and Superintendent David Bottem is licensed for kindergarten through grade six, he felt they could cover the position of high school principal between the two of them.

"It was simply one option as far as saving money that I felt would have been sufficient, at least for the short term," Poirier said.

Poirier pointed out that the district has been deficit spending for the past two years and its undesignated reserve fund will be down to $830,000 after the current school year. In addition, the most recent per pupil levy passed by the district last fall supplies only $1 per pupil as opposed to the $200 per pupil levy that recently expired. Those things, along with cutbacks and delayed payments from the state, have placed the district in a somewhat tenuous financial situation that board members are hoping to remedy in the not-too-distant future.


"Our goal is to keep our 'rainy day' fund up, and also to balance the budget," said Poirier. "I think thus far the board is failing on getting us there, and so is Superintendent Bottem."

Not all of the members of the board, nor the district's faculty and staff members, agreed with utilizing the high school principal position as a cost-saving measure, however. Shortly before this week's board meeting, community members received a packet containing two letters from local representatives of Education Minnesota-Barnum and AFSCME Council 65/Local 3789. Both supported rehiring for the principal's position, arguing that the role of principal requires, among other things, having a disciplinarian on site as well as a full-time presence at the school to handle the "multitude of issues every day in the high school building," according to Jim Calhoun, president of AFSCME Local 3789.

Calhoun went on to point out that nearby Willow River has a K-12 principal for their student population of 425.

"Yet, the Barnum District's enrollment is 341 in grades 7-12 and 456 in grades K-6, for a total of nearly 800 students," wrote Calhoun. "Our enrollment is growing. Now is not the time to cut an administrator!"

Linda Redetzke, president of Education Minnesota-Barnum concurred.

"It is the position of the Barnum teachers that we continue on the path of a high quality educational system," wrote Redetzke. "In order to do that, we need a complete team of educators as well as educational administrators to do this work."

Superintendent David Bottem agreed there is concern over the growing size of the district and the need for on-site administrators in both buildings.

"There seems to be a widespread feeling that we need individual leadership, for the sake of the students and the staff as well," he said.


Only a handful of visitors were in the audience at Tuesday night's school board meeting, and Poirier reported that only one spoke out regarding the principal situation and that person was opposed to rehiring for the post at this time.

The final board vote came after considerable discussion, with Donnie Juntunen casting a dissenting vote along with Poirier.

Poirier said the district is now prepared to move ahead with the final hiring phase for the position. The district has already set a timeline and advertised for the post, and 24 applications have been received. The next step will be to score those applications and conduct interviews, with an eye toward hiring the new principal at the May school board meeting.

In the meantime, Poirier said the district is looking ahead to a possible increase in funding from the state further down the line.

"These next two weeks are going to be an exciting time in the legislature," said Poirier. "We are about a month away from knowing what the state will do, and a year away from getting any money."

He said there is talk at the state level of funding all-day kindergarten, which would mean an increase of some $130,000 for the Barnum District. Another idea making the rounds at the state level is the possibility of bringing the 56 districts currently without referendums up to the same $300 per pupil benchmark as the rest of the districts, which would mean an increase of some $230,000 for Barnum. Poirier said there has also been a proposal to increase the money in the standard per pupil formula to $100 per student, about double from where it was a year ago.

"I feel we're only a year away from being as comfortable as we once were," said Poirier. "There's certainly no need to hit the panic button. We're sitting in a really good spot. It's just frustrating when the state cuts your money and doesn't pay for it."

In other action at Tuesday night's school board voted 6-1 (with Poirier dissenting) to delay a decision whether to fill a first-grade position to be vacated by the retirement of teacher Mary Bush.


There was also preliminary discussion about a possible referendum vote in fall 2014 in support of a $16 million addition to the high school. Bottem said the proposal is in response to the continued growth of the district and its programming since the building was first constructed in the 1980s. He added that the plan would be to add six to eight more classrooms, and new gym and locker room space, expand the band room (the band has doubled in size since the school was built) and replace the original boiler at the elementary school to achieve greater energy efficiency.

Poirier said while none of the board members has stated an opinion in favor or against the proposal at this time, the board is eager to gather public input.

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