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Board zeroes in on budget cuts

Line item by line item, more than $500,000 in school cuts were checked off the list by the Perham-Dent school board March 14.

At the end of the two-and-a-half-hour exercise, what remained--at least on paper--was a markedly different school.

Band and orchestra, visual arts, foreign language, administration, elementary coaching, custodial, and clerical departments would all face steep reductions.

Fees for participating in everything from sports to FFA to competitive speech would increase to students and families.

The board and administrators spent four hours in the process, methodically discussing each budget cut.

There were a few revisions, but the list reviewed on March 14 was scheduled for a final vote at the March 19 regular school board meeting.

High school band and orchestra would cease to exist as we presently know them. The equivalent of two full-time music teachers would be cut, for a savings of about $98,000.

Pep band and other band appearances outside the school day would be eliminated, for a savings of about $3,924. There are about 22 such appearances each year, said band director Adam Tervola-Hultberg.

Music opportunities would remain in the elementary and middle school, including music lab. But band and orchestra for grades 9-12 would essentially become an extracurricular activity, with practices outside of school hours.

School district resident Tom Meinhover, who said he is a staunch supporter of the arts, said that "this is the perfect opportunity for the community to mobilize for the arts." He said that music could be rebuilt by the school partnering with the community.

Recruiting resources within the community to help sustain programs, particularly the arts, was a recurring theme during the March 14 budget cutting discussion.

Other arts programs facing cuts include the middle school "One Act Play."

Activities Director Fred Sailer said that, during difficult financial times, "we have to look at opportunities differently than we used to."

An example of a creative approach to offer a theater experience is a plan this summer to offer individual acting lessons to youth--rather than the more expensive "Prairie Fire Theater" artist-in-residence program that the school has booked in June for many years.

In the visual arts programs, administrators have revised previously proposed cuts. The equivalent of 1.5 full-time positions would be cut, for a savings of $78,000. But a half-time-position would be maintained--primarily for the high school.

In the elementary school, art would be incorporated into regular classroom curriculum.

Under this proposal, the visual arts would essentially be eliminated from the middle school.

Make-up of the school's administration could be altered substantially. The dean of students position was up for elimination, with savings estimated at $80,000. School administrators are investigating the possibility of funding part of the dean's position through safety grants and other programs--which do not affect the school's general fund.

Also, the school could save $25,000 by filling the middle school principal vacancy with a lower-paid, entry-level candidate.

"The public would prefer cuts in administration rather than teachers," said board member Mike Hamann, "because one of the main concerns of the public is the teacher to student ratio."

School Superintendent Tamara Uselman said the dean of students is a "key position," but she acknowledged that it is "reasonable to expect administration to share in the cuts."

Without a dean of students, "there are about 20 to 30 fringe kids that we've kept in class," who could drop out of school or move to the Alternative Learning Center, said high school Principal John Rutten.

Gifted-talented program cuts are $36,900.

In the elementary school, the gifted-talented instructor would be transferred into the classroom.

A similar restructuring would occur in the middle school gifted and talented program.

Family and Consumer Science staff would be cut by $23,334, or a .4 position. This would be absorbed by other staff.

The library would be cut by a half-time position, saving nearly $20,000.

A restructuring of language programs would eliminate German in the lower grades, but the board decided to continue it in the high school.

Sports programs would be impacted as well, with $6,000 in cuts to elementary coaches. This would not, however, eliminate the option of elementary coaches being paid through outside community fundraising.

Activities and athletic director Sailer stopped short of endorsing volunteer coaches for the middle school, however.

"If you don't have a feeder program, why bother with varsity sports," said Sailer.

It is also important to note, said Sailer, that sports programs are highly supported through private donations and civic groups. Fireworks at the homecoming football game, for example, are funded entirely through contributions--not the school budget.

Also, when the public sees nine coaches on the sidelines during a football game, most of them are volunteers--not paid coaches, said Sailer.

The transportation budget may also be revisited, even though one route was cut last fall.

But board members debated how to go about bus cuts.

Board member Mike Hamann suggested a $60,000 line item budget cut.

"That's about equal to the cost of two teachers," said Hamann. "And that's what the public wants--to retain teacher-student ratios."

But board member Arnie Thompson said he "disagreed with putting in a number that is pure fiction instead of hard fact."

An earlier proposal called for an across-the-board cut in hours worked by para-professionals.

The revised list called for a reduction in paras, by the full-time equivalent of 2.5.

This would save the district $50,000.

Another cut calls for reducing secretarial staff at the school district office, and restructuring positions. This would save about $20,000.