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Public to question NY Mills school cuts March 9

There are many questions around the anticipated school cuts and people want answers. The public will have a chance to address the New York Mills School Board and administration during a public meeting Monday, 6 p.m., in the performing arts center.

School superintendent Todd Cameron presented a first reading of proposed cuts at the Feb. 23 board meeting. The proposal calls for $440,000 cut from the 2009-10 budget. The proposed reductions are administration, district office staff, elementary school office, maintenance staff, supervisor salary reductions, as well as four full-time equivalent teacher positions.

The plan presented to board listed cutting the elementary school principal position and the elementary secretary position. According to the information presented, cutting the principal position would save $80,000 and the secretary position would cut $30,000 from the budget.

What will happen with the elementary office is one big question being asked in the community since the information was released.

Cameron said this week if the board approved the plan to eliminate one administrator and the elementary secretary position then the duties would likely be divvied up between remaining administrators and office staff.

"This meeting March 9 is an opportunity for citizens to speak," Cameron said. "No board decisions will be made at that time but this is an opportunity for us to listen, and to hear what people's thoughts, ideas and concerns are."

The district is facing a nearly $150,000 budget shortfall next year. The $440,000 in cuts would leave an estimated $300,000 fund balance. Some in the public have questioned whether that fund balance is necessary. The district over the past few years has been working toward maintaining a $300,000 reserve to cover any unforseen costs, as well as capital and facilities improvements.

Cameron has met with staff members to hear what their questions are concerning the budget cuts. According to the first reading, the district would cut four full-time equivalent teacher positions. Whether that would actually mean four teachers, or a combination of full-time and half-time positions, won't be clear until the final decision is made at the March 23 board meeting.

The talk of anticipated federal stimulus money making its way to the general fund has people asking more questions. When, and how much money, will New York Mills see? Cameron has been asked those questions numerous times and says the answers just aren't out there yet. He's seen a few different numbers, but calls the figures "arbitrary" at this point.

For most rural Minnesota schools the stimulus money targeted for special education could be rejected. Preliminary estimates suggest New York Mills qualifies for about $156,000 in IDEA special education money, with an additional $96,000 possibly coming in Title I funding. The Title 1A stimulus money, aimed at improving learning for elementary students, could give local schools budgeting flexibility that may take off some financial pressure.

"At this point, I don't know the answer to the question about the stimulus money for education and exactly how much that will be, when we will receive it, or what the rules are for using the money," Cameron said. "We also don't know at this time what the state of Minnesota plans to do with a 5 billion dollars plus deficit and what affect this might have on education funding."

Cameron went on to say some of this information is not going to be known until June or later this summer. The school's budget cycle runs from June 30 to July 1 (fiscal year) and final budget must be approved by the school board prior to July 1.

Teachers are asking if, and when, the stimulus money arrives if there would be an opportunity for teacher positions to be reinstated. Cameron said that is something they would definitely consider, but keep in mind this is one-time money for this year only.

With NY Mills hosting last weekend's section wrestling tournament there were plenty of budget discussions throughout the two days of wrestling. People are wondering about the elementary science program, which is listed as being part of the proposed cuts. If that is the case, Cameron speculates, then elementary science would be taught in each classroom by classroom teachers.

The March 9 meeting is open to the public and the school board will follow policy, allowing for members of the public to comment, with a limit of 5 minutes per speaker.