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UPDATED: Carlton School proposes teacher cutbacks, issue tabled for now

Members of the Carlton School Board, laboring under a burden of statutory operating debt, a failed referendum and an unsigned teacher contract, were forced to make still more budget cuts this week - this time in the form of teacher layoffs and cu...

Walk out at Carlton High
Jenny Sundstrom-Emerson, Ellie Fasteland, Mara Johnson and Karlee Strum hold signs outside Carlton High School Thursday afternoon during a Carlton student walkout. The students were protesting proposed teacher cuts. "I really want our teachers to stay," said Strum. "They're like family to us." Lisa Baumann/lbaumann@pinejournal.com

Members of the Carlton School Board, laboring under a burden of statutory operating debt, a failed referendum and an unsigned teacher contract, were forced to make still more budget cuts this week - this time in the form of teacher layoffs and cutbacks.

According to Board Chair Randy Schmitz and Vice Chair Peggy Kiehn, the board has proposed two full-time teaching positions be eliminated for the 2010-2011 school year and that 10 other teaching positions be reduced by one to five hours a day each. In all, the budget cutbacks would impact 5.14 FTEs (full-time equivalents) and result in a maximum budget savings of some $362,000.

Kiehn said the teachers to be placed on unrequested leaves of absence were informed of the pending action in one-on-one meetings with incoming Superintendent Peter Haapala on Tuesday, a mandatory process required by the Minnesota State Department of Education.

The school board has now called a special meeting for 6 p.m. Thursday, June 3, at the high school to take formal action on the unrequested leaves of absence. The meeting is open to the public, and Kiehn said she intends for all questions to be answered during that session.

She and Schmitz clarified that the latest budget move will not result in the elimination of any existing programs or class offerings, and she said the openings resulting from the cutbacks will be backfilled by existing teachers.

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Kiehn explained that most teachers in District 93 currently have five hours of classroom instruction, one hour of preparatory time and one hour of "resource time," generally reserved to help provide individual assistance to students in particular areas of study.

Schmitz said teacher contracts allow for six hours of classroom instruction and one hour of prep time, so the board is proposing that the seventh hour "resource time" be transitioned back to actual teaching time to help wherever needed as a result of the staffing cutbacks.

In some cases, Kiehn added, the same result will be achieved by combining sections where feasible, though she emphasized that no class will be larger than 35 pupils, and even then, there will be only two of that size, with most significantly smaller.

"We prefer to think of it as 'right sizing,'" said Schmitz.

Kiehn said it was the district's small class sizes - some with as few as one to four students - that caught the attention of Superintendent Haapala.

"As we struggled with how to meet the most recently required budget cuts," said Schmitz, "it was helpful to have someone come in with 'outside eyes' who was able identify how we could tighten things up without eliminating class offerings."

Haapala, who most recently served as principal at schools in Mountain Iron-Buhl and St. Paul, was hired earlier this spring to replace retiring superintendent Scott Hoch. Though he was not slated to begin full-time employment with the district until July, the board requested his input and assistance when they realized the district's budget was in more trouble than they originally thought.

The district has operated under statutory operating debt (SOD) for eight out of the last 10 years. It has, at various times, been required to update its SOD plan in order to account for how the mandatory budget cuts will be made in order to bring the district out of debt by June 30, 2010.

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After a proposed two-part referendum failed to get past district voters earlier this spring, the State Department of Education contacted Schmitz and informed him they would be sending a representative to the May 17 board meeting.

At that meeting, Kiehn said the state essentially told the board they would have to come up with a new plan of action before June 15 to reduce the district's debt. The Carlton School District is currently projected to be $768,000 in deficit as of June 30.

Schmitz said at the time of that meeting, the board believed the district already had an approved SOD plan. Following Hoch's departure from his position, however, a letter from the state dated April 19, 2010, was discovered in a folder on Hoch's desk requiring the plan be updated to adjust to the district's most recent budget setbacks.

At the May 19 meeting, attended by board members as well as various teachers and community members, the district was ordered to work with the Arrowhead Regional Consortium to come up with an adjusted plan to bring the district out of SOD by June 30, 2013.

The resulting budget plan, due May 26, required the district spending in 2010-2011 be reduced by an additional $350,000 in addition to the cuts that have already been made.

Last Friday, May 29, Haapala met with two members of the board's finance committee as well as building principals to look at budget projections and discuss how they can best be met.

Schmitz reported that Haapala then spent Memorial weekend studying the district's class configurations and how they could be adjusted to reflect fewer staff hours. Board members were then informed of the resulting plan on Monday night, and Haapala met with individual teachers on Tuesday to inform them of the plan.

The Carlton School District's student population has shown a steady decline over the past several years, according to Schmitz and Kiehn, and the number of students coming into the district has not come close to the numbers who are graduating. In 2006, for example, 65 students graduated while only 35 kindergarteners entered school at the beginning of the year. The current number of pupils enrolled in the district is 583.

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Backlash to the proposed teacher cuts was almost immediate on Tuesday, as word spread among students in classrooms and on Facebook, with community members also adding feedback ranging from concern to outrage.

According to graduating senior Greg Emerson, a student walkout was planned for 1:30 p.m. Thursday to voice student objections to the staffing cutbacks.

"We have some really good teachers," said Emerson, "and it's a really sad thing to see any of them go."

Though Emerson said he is uncertain if the walkout will involve any sort of signage or spoken protests, he said his sense is that most students were in support of it.

"It's a case of everyone coming together for something we believe in," he said. "[These staffing cutbacks] are not something we support."

He added he's also heard that a group of community members has started a special group on Facebook to encourage people to attend Thursday night's board meeting.

Kiehn and Schmitz said teachers placed on unrequested leave have a one-day grace period, followed by 14 days to file for an appeal if they so choose.

This most recent budget action will not be Carlton's last. Kiehn and Schmitz said if a referendum fails to pass again next November, the district will be on track to cut at least $350,000 more each year for the next two years after this one.

Related Topics: CARLTONEDUCATION
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