Big changes coming to Perham-Dent? Officials consider 4-day school week, new levy
Fresh off a fourth failed levy attempt and faced with a budget crisis, Perham-Dent School District officials are coming up with a fiscal plan of attack - one that could directly hit parents' pocketbooks.
If initial talks are any indication, the district may be going to four-day school weeks - and making another levy attempt - within the next year.
In a special meeting last Wednesday, school board members and department heads discussed several options for raising revenue and cutting the budget. No final decisions have been made yet about anything, but there was general agreement around the table that serious measures need to be taken soon to keep the district in the black.
During the conversation, some spoke frankly in favor of cuts that might make voters think twice before checking another 'no' box on their referendum ballots.
Arnie Thompson, for example, said he was already prepared to vote for a four-day school week - an option that he acknowledged would "make people suffer."
"We're here to give the kids the best education possible, and if that means a four-day week, so be it," said Thompson. "They ('no' voters) made us make that decision."
Sue Huebsch said she worried about "punishing the wrong people," but added that, "we have to do something... and we have to make something painful if we want people to vote 'yes'" on a future referendum.
It was agreed that going to a four-day school week would be problematic for some Perham area parents - especially those who would have to find and pay for daycare during that off-day of school, or rearrange their work schedules to be home with kids for that extra day.
Still, district leaders are taking the option seriously.
They looked to Pelican Rapids as an example of a school district that successfully implemented four-day school weeks. After one year, that district had saved more than $100,000 by cutting back to four days a week, and many parents and students actually preferred the new schedule.
Though this model results in four "long days" of early mornings and late nights for students, Superintendent Mitch Anderson said, over the course of a school year students get more instruction time with teachers than they do under the five-day model. The Pelican Rapids example also showed fewer disciplinary problems and better attendance with four-day weeks.
"Some of the fears I had (about four-day weeks) have been eased by what I've been reading," said school board member Cyndy Huber.
If Perham-Dent doesn't go to four-day school weeks, officials said there would have to be other significant cuts at every grade level - cuts that could, on the whole, have more of a negative impact on students than going to a four-day school week. Just a few possibilities talked about included cuts to staff, which would raise class sizes as high as the 40s in some classes, as well as cuts to transportation and increased activity fees.
Board member Jim Rieber pointed out that the district has enough money in its general fund to avoid drastic measures for another year.
"We could spend down the fund balance while we look at other options," he said.
Though there is already less money in the district's general fund than the state recommends, there's still some wiggle room. Perham-Dent has a way to go before being in Statutory Operating Debt - an end-of-the-line point at which the state comes in and determines cuts for the district.
There is also the possibility that the district could see more revenue coming in, said Rieber, in the form of increased state funding, donations, or from another source - namely, a Capital Project Referendum.
Like four-day school weeks, this referendum was a topic that stood out in conversation.
Anderson, who presented the idea, said this new referendum has a higher likelihood of passing than did referendums of the past. He said a Capital Project levy differs in major ways from the levy that failed this fall.
For one thing, money raised through a Capital Project Levy is used for specific purposes that can be clearly laid out for voters, so they know exactly where their money is going. Unlike the previous levy, funds would not be directly used toward teaching staff; rather, they can only be used for such things as technology, textbooks, and building improvements.
"This is something different," said Anderson. "This is specific, this is tangible... And I think we need to do something different, not just another operating levy."
Secondly, the Capital Project referendum would not exclude owners of seasonal recreational properties, such as summer lake cabins. This would spread the dollars across a wider tax base, resulting in a lesser impact on individual taxpayer's wallets.
This referendum could also be put together quickly - Anderson said it could be done as a mail-in ballot this January or February.
The board plans to meet with administration again on Tuesday, Dec. 6 to talk more about their options. Some final decisions could be made at that time.