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Options for potential Perham-Dent school cuts revealed

With no levy referendum next year, declining enrollment, a loss of federal stimulus funding, and major repair expenses, the Perham-Dent Public School District is facing some gut-wrenching decisions.

A series of options for potential budget cuts were unveiled at the regular Perham-Dent school board meeting on Feb. 16.

These include moving to a four-day school week, restructuring administration, cutting staff, restructuring the school day, among others. While the board has not made a decision yet, it is facing an April deadline.

The board is taking its time based on several unknown factors.

It still isn't known if the state will cut funding to education. Superintendent Tamara Uselman said she was in St. Cloud last week and was told that the state was not looking for additional cuts to education, but nothing was off the table.

Another unknown is how much it's going to cost to fix the geothermal heating system at Prairie Wind Middle School. Preliminary estimates are the cost will be at least $250,000, but could be much more.

Uselman advised the board to pull the federal Jobs Bill monies allocated to the district into this year.

"Doing so will create a hardship for next year," Uselman said. "But Jobs Bill money was given to protect jobs."

Pulling the money into this year will mean a possible reduction of $280,000 in potential cuts as opposed to the original number of $500,000.

Other proposed options include introducing a four-day school week, doing away with the block schedule system at the high school, closing a building in the district, restructuring administration or the "ugly choice," staff reductions.

While Uselman said she does not support a four-day week, "when forced against some other choices perhaps that's an option."

She went on to say that she didn't believe it was a long term solution.

"It works until inflation outgrows it," she said. "What do you do then after a four day week, go to a three day week?"

She also advised the board to think about students who are dealing with unstable homes, hunger and poverty.

"It doesn't work for all kids," she said. "But I'd take that before I'd take some of the other options."

One audience member asked the board to keep in mind that if the district were to go to a four-day week, 20 percent of income would be cut for non-salaried staff.

As for the block schedule, some parents including school board member Sue Huebsch, said they don't believe the block system challenges some students enough.

High School Principal John Rutten said he and the majority of staff like the system and changing back to a seven period system would save maybe a half a teacher's salary.

Administration restructuring was another hot button item. There has been discussion of combining the superintendent and high school principal positions that were recently vacated by Uselman and John Rutten.

The school board decided to post job openings for both positions to get a feel for interested candidates.

Considering options

About 40 teachers, staff, parents and community members attended the meeting to weigh in on the options.

Staff took a survey and ranked eight choices. Results showed that the most favorable option was the four-day week. The least popular options were to close a building and increased class sizes.

Board member Arnie Thompson said he wanted to try to avoid these options by both pulling the Jobs Bill monies into this year and spending down the fund balance.

"I'd rather spend it (the fund balance) down and keep the system we have," he said.

The board has to make a final decision by April, Uselman said, but Thompson warned the board of the urgency.

"We have one month to make a decision," he said. "It's not right to wait until last minute to tell someone they're being laid off if it comes to that."

Huebsch asked if there were ways to generate more revenue such as an activity fee increase. Uselman said the board could take that under consideration. Yates reminded the board that the biggest revenue generator is students in the district.

"Don't forget that kids are revenue," she said. "We need to think outside the box and make ourselves more appealing."

Uselman reiterated that the district's priorities are investing in students by having quality teachers and reasonable class sizes.

The three principals echoed her sentiments, expressing a need for smaller class sizes.

"Put a teacher in a room with too many needs and they cannot do their jobs well," Elementary Principal Kari Yates said.

Middle school Principal Scott Bjerke agreed and said the major focus is investing in the students.

"We believe in protecting the classroom," he said. "Do what's right for students."

The next school board meeting will be held Wednesday, March 16 at 5 p.m. at City Council chambers. For agendas and minutes, go to