Stillwater area schools to cut up to 30 teachers

More adjustments, scaling back anticipated

Stillwater Area Public Schools could lose up to 30 teachers next year.

In what’s just the beginning of cuts and adjustments to be made to balance the budget, the school board Thursday approved scaling back instructional staff by the equivalent of about 30.2 full-time positions.

The staff reduction would add one student to the district staffing ratio. The total number of students is divided by that ratio to determine the amount of sections in each grade.

Teachers in the audience wore red in solidarity. The council chambers at Stillwater City Hall was overflowing at the meeting with attendees standing in the aisles and the hallway. By adjournment close to 11 p.m., enough of the crowd had filtered out to leave some vacant seats.

The staffing cuts would be made from the district’s about 500 full-time teachers, according to Cathy Moen, the director of administrative services.

She said probationary teachers will be the first to be let go. If necessary, tenured staff would be put on unrequested leaves of absence, and then have first rights to vacancies around the district.

The first round of reductions will be decided in mid-April, Moen said.

About 16 teachers were already going to be fired, due to declining enrollment in some schools around the district, particularly at the elementary level -- a trend that’s expected to continue in coming years. Staff presented the possibility of additional cuts, in part to avoid draining the district’s cash on hand much further.

Superintendent Corey Lunn called the staff cuts picked Thursday a “threshold.” He said the board could keep more teachers, if they make adjustments elsewhere in the general fund later on, freeing up money for staff.

Cuts were expected

Facing increased operational costs and declining enrollment, the district, which includes Lake Elmo Elementary and Oak-Land Junior High in Lake Elmo, anticipated there would be cuts and reallocations in the budget, according to finance director Kristen Hoheisel.

The district has been deliberately dipping into its reserves since 2010-11, spending the fund balance down as expenditures exceeded revenue, she said.

Despite the passing of a $16.2 million levy last fall, the school board has had to start cutting a projected $4 million for the 2014-15 school year. Of that, $1.59 million has already been made up with one-time adjustments, including taking $900,000 from the unallocated fund balance of more than $4 million, and delaying a global language program that’s part of the district’s “Bridge to Excellence” initiative.

One-time fixes put off identifying permanent ones, which will need to be determined eventually, according to Hoheisel.

About $3 million will have to be made up in the 2016-17 school year, due to one-time shifts in 2013-14 and 2014-15.

The staff reduction is expected to trim around $1 million (about 1 percent of the overall budget) from expenditures, leaving another nearly $1.6 million to be slashed from or moved around in the budget.

More cash or more teachers

The school board has been weighing whether to maintain its cash on hand, or build it back up later through deeper cuts to the budget.

An additional $900,000 could be taken from the fund balance in order to balance the 2014-15 budget, which would drop reserves down to 3 percent of expenses.

School district policy says the district should “strive to maintain a minimum unassigned general fund balance of 5 percent of the annual projected expenditures.”

A lower fund balance can negatively impact the district’s credit rating and its chance at good interest rates when it applies for loans, according to Hoheisel.

“The hardest challenge about dropping your fund balance down is building it back up to a level that’s acceptable,” Hoheisel said.

Board member Natasha Fleischman said that it was “terrible” the last time the district had to set aside more money.

“We were making budget cuts when we had plenty of money, because we had to build up that fund balance,” she said.

Board member George Hoeppner grappled with that issue during discussion Thursday. He said he would have a hard time getting rid of staff, when the district had millions in available funds.

“It’s very hard to make cuts or increase class size,” he said. “It’s going to be done on the backs of the teachers.”

At the same time, board member Amy Burback said, the board has a responsibility to keep the district’s finances healthy.

“It’s painful to choose,” she said.

More cuts ahead

Staff presented options for additional cuts and adjustments at the meeting.

The school board will likely decide what stays and what’s reduced or reallocated at its next meeting on March 27.

Adjustments to the budget could include skimming nearly $720,000 from administrative services and cutting $425,000 by adopting new models for Marine and Withrow elementaries and the St. Croix Valley Area Learning Center.

Earlier on at the meeting, the school board reviewed a possible option to hand over operations of the ALC to the Northeast Metro 916 Intermediate School District, which already operates multiple alternative learning programs. Several audience members spoke against that possibility, and school board members said some parents were angry about it, because the parents chose to send their kids to Stillwater’s program specifically for how it’s run.

Three-quarters of Bridge to Excellence, a plan focused on creating more flexibility and personalization in learning, will be covered by levy dollars, as promised to voters. Therefore, those levy dollars won’t be used to solve the general fund problems the board is facing. 

Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at 651-748-7814 and kroby@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/KRobyNews.
 

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