More than 150 people filled the auditorium at Barnum High School to listen to recommended cuts for the 2020-21 school year during a school board work session Tuesday, Feb. 4.

After deficit-spending five of the last six school years, the district needs to make nearly $750,000 in cuts to keep a positive fund balance next year, officials said.

First year superintendent Mike McNulty said when he started late last summer, he began looking at the fiscal health of the district and found revenue declining for a couple of reasons.

The district’s enrollment is currently 705, but has decreased by 87 students since 2014 — more than 10% of the total student population in the district. The trend is expected to continue over the next several years when factoring in the number of students who will graduate and the number of children being born in the district.

The state and federal governments provide about $10,000 per student each year, McNulty said. Each time the enrollment falls, the district receives less money.

Another factor is the increase in “cross-subsidy costs” — requirements for additional school spending in certain areas like special education not funded by the state or federal government — that has increased by approximately $150,000 since 2015, McNulty said.

The majority of the recommended cuts would reduce the number of instructional positions in the school. McNulty outlined more than $576,000 in cost savings that involved cutting up to seven full-time positions. Among the staffing reductions were two elementary teaching positions and five at the middle and high school.

The elementary school would go from 18 to 16 sections in grades K-6. High school cuts would include full-time math and special education teachers, as well as a media specialist. Two positions — a science and Spanish teacher — would be reduced from full- to half-time.

Non-personnel cuts totaling more than $165,000 would eliminate a bus route and drop scheduled technology purchases next year.

Dozens of people — including more than 20 students — stood up to speak in opposition to the staffing cuts and question where the large deficit came from.

Barnum resident John Brown said the spending cuts “came out of left field” and Katie Genereau — a Sturgeon Lake resident open enrolling her children into Barnum — asked why the school board had not planned for declining revenue.

Board Vice Chair Paul Coughlin acknowledged the board should have begun making cuts to the budget earlier, but the cuts are necessary now or the district risks going into statutory operating debt (SOD). SOD means a district has a net negative unreserved general fund balance exceeding more than 2.5% of its unreserved operating expenditures. Districts in SOD must make state-mandated cuts or risk losing state funding.

The board has used its savings in the past to keep "as many teachers as possible," Coughlin said, but that is no longer an option.

"We don’t have that money anymore, so we can choose to keep deficit-spending ... and we’ll end up in SOD. If we do that for three years, the State of Minnesota will come here, freeze everything and make cuts for us, and we lose local control,” he said.

Barnum High School teacher Kari Johnson asked the board why other cuts were not on the table before cutting teachers.

“I missed the slide that had the administrative cuts,” Johnson said. “I know this may be harsh to say, but there are districts our size that run on half a superintendent and one principal. If you were to cut those positions you could save every single person in the high school that is on that cut list, and I believe that potentially cutting activities and sports could save those positions at the elementary school.”

Board Chair Colleen Fetters said there had been some conversation about combining superintendent services with the Moose Lake School District. However, there are issues with combining superintendent and administrator duties, and the Minnesota School Board Association recommends districts larger than 500 students not share superintendent services, Coughlin added.

At least three local districts, however, combine administrative and superintendent duties or share a superintendent with another district. Kim Belcastro, superintendent of Wrenshall, also serves as the administrator for the pre-K-12 school. In addition, Bill Crandall serves as the superintendent of both Lake Superior School District and Cook County School District. Cook County has approximately 500 students and Lake Superior has more than 1,300.

Students and parents lined up for more than three hours to voice their opposition to staff cuts and larger class sizes. Barnum senior Kyle Baker — among many others — highlighted the relationships teachers have cultivated with him over the years and implored the board to find other places to make cuts.

“The main thing we need to do is avoid cutting teachers at all costs,” Baker said.

The school board did not take action at Tuesday’s meeting but could begin voting on proposed cuts at its next meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 18, at Barnum High School.

This story originally contained a misspelling of Kari Johnson’s name. It was updated at 9:04 p.m. on Feb. 5 with the proper spelling. The Pine Journal regrets the error.