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Community weighs in on NY Mills school cuts

The people of New York Mills are passionate about their school. Parents, teachers and others closely connected to the school district showed that passion at a community meeting Monday night.

Whether we call the situation budget cuts, containment or right-sizing, a $440,000 reduction in next year's budget - with jobs and programs potentially lost - it gets peoples' attention.

With an estimated 75-100 people in attendance at Monday's meeting the board and administration, led by Superintendent Todd Cameron, sat and listened to the concerns.

Tim Kupfer, NY Mills School Board President, made it clear this was not going to be a debate.

"We're here to listen to your ideas and take those ideas when we make out final decision," Kupfer said at the start of the meeting.

Coming off the announced first reading of possible cuts last month, community members and teachers made it clear to the board they would like more information and explanations why certain positions and programs may be cut.

Superintendent Cameron presented at the February board meeting a first reading $440,000 budget reduction proposal. The reason reasons given at the February meeting: decreased enrollment, increased expenses and no new funding expected from the state legislature. Cameron reiterated those points again Monday, citing in 2006 the district had an enrollment of 750-plus. Today, enrollment is 711. Cameron projects no increase in state funding each of the next two years.

The board's final decision on the budget takes place at the March 23 meeting. Cameron said things could change with the budget and funding in the coming months based enrollment, state revenue and federal stimulus money.

Jan Parta was not pleased Monday with the idea of the district cutting $440,000. Parta told the board she was at the meeting because, "she really cares about this community." Parta spent 23 years on the school board. She's s substitute teacher. Her kids went to school here. And she has three grandchildren open-enrolled in the district.

Parta called the school board meeting where the $440,000 in possible cuts was announced, the "Mills Monday Night Massacre." The most notable of those cuts come in the elementary end of the school.

Included in the first reading of possible cuts are the elementary school principal, elementary office secretary, elementary science program, and Early Intervention Reading. Four full-time equivalent teacher positions in the elemetary and high school are also included in the initial plan.

Parents and teachers at Monday's meeting made it clear to the board and administration they did not think cuts to the elementary office was not a good idea. On paper, if the district decided to follow through with the elementary cuts it would essentially close the office, or at least leave it unstaffed.

Nikki Perala, who is a parent of elementary students, said the district needs a principal or administrator in the building easily accessible to the elementary needs. She also brought up a safety concern for that end of the building.

"Is it wise to sacrifice the stability of the school by closing the elementary office?", she asked the board.

Perala would like to see an administrator remain in the elementary school but also said she believes it's still possible to reduce the administration in some way to 2 1/2, instead of the current three full-time administrators. The district currently has a full-time superintendent, as well as full-time principals in both the high school and elementary school.

Cindy Mann said she too was frustrated with the process and wanted to know what the plan was for the elementary office. Some feel there is a way to make administration cuts and still staff the elementary office.

The board did not respond to the comments but Kupfer and Cameron did state following the meeting they still intend on finding a way to staff the elementary office.

"I would like to see a half-time superintendent. That's an idea I fully support," Mann said at the meeting. "You can't cut our teachers. Our teachers need to be with our kids."

By not addressing the comments Monday, some expressed frustration with the initial proposal and how things have unfolded to this point.

"I'm frustrated with the process," Matt Radniecki told the board. "I find it frustrating as a parent, and I feel somewhat this process has been closed doors."

Radniecki is a 4th grade teacher with one student currently in the elementary school, and two younger children coming up in the next few years.

Although Radniecki expressed his frustration with the process, he did tell the board he appreciates the fact these are tough decisions and doesn't envy their task in facing cuts.

The district is looking at a $150,000 budget shortfall next year. The $440,000 in estimated cuts includes the shortfall and to build an approximately $300,000 fund balance. Radniecki and others questioned if this is the right time to try and build up the fund balance.

"Ideally it would be great," he said. "But we're not dealing with ideal times." Radniecki said he felt a $150,000 or $200,000 fund balance would be more realistic.

He went on to recognize the root of this problem is the lack of legislative funding. Radniecki suggested people write to our legislators and make it clear districts need more funding from the state.

Radniecki also stated he believes a referendum could pass in this community, despite Cameron publicly saying he did not feel this is the year to try and pass a levy referendum.

Early Intervention Reading

The Early Intervention Reading program is also listed as a possible cut. A number of speakers Monday said they believe EIR is too valuable to eliminate.

Carol Wilkowski expressed her continued support of EIR, which is designed to accelerate students' reading skills at an early age. The program was first introduced in 2006 with 3rd-graders and, Wilkowski stated, was very successful. The program was expanded to students in grades k-4.

"EIR is essential in getting students off to a good start in reading," Wilkowski said.

The elementary science program is also in jeopardy of being cut. If the district decides to eliminate that position, science would be taught by each classroom teachers.

In the high school, the proposed plan calls for making cuts to the high school media center. Alyce Tomporowski, the High School Media Specialist, stressed the value of having a full-time media specialist. She said the school media centers are vibrant and active, used by students and staff. She told the board she is a curriculum and teaching partner with the teachers in the high school. High school teacher Jo Rudnitski called the media center the "heart of our school."


Along with public comments on what not to cut, there are some ideas on how to save the district money.

Dennis Swenson suggested the board, instead of cutting the salaries of supervisors by 10 percent, should consider an 8 percent wage and salary cut for everybody from the top down. He also suggested the board look at cutting some bus routes to save money.

Rick Snelgrove, a rural NY Mills resident who has a history of keeping close tabs on the school board, told the board Monday he was a "friendly face in the crowd" this time. Snelgrove supported the cuts and offered optional cuts to find the approximately $440,000 in savings.

Among those suggestions was to eliminate Junior Kindergarten. Snelgrove's plan states the program is not recognized by the State of Minnesota and is funded 100 percent by local taxes. He claims studies show everything taught in Junior Kindergarten can be learned in later years. And a local church already has a similar Junior Kindergarten program.

Snelgrove also suggests a 2 to 2.5% wage and salary reduction across the board. He also said part of the problem the district is in now is due to high raise and benefit increases over the last six years, and not lack of funding from the state or local taxpayers. Snelgrove also suggested if a salary cut is rejected, the district should lay off teachers to meet budget requirements.

Dale Jokela asked what the total salary was for district staff. Cameron estimated this at $2.3 to $2.4 million. And Jokela asked if people would be willing to take a cut in wages across the board. He also asked if the district could cut bus routes, consider lengthening the school day, and look at tightening things up in sports for some savings.

Larry Hodgson, who taught for 30 years in the district and currently serves as Mayor of NY Mills, offered his support to the board. "These are very difficult cuts and not everybody is going to be happy," he said. "I don't envy you. I know you don't have an easy task ahead of you but I hope you make the right decision for the good of the community."

Kupfer closed the meeting by saying, "I'd just like to say budget cuts are not easy. The board has worked very hard, and continues to work very hard to do what's best for the kids."