Closing schools not option for MAPS budget cuts

The Merrill Area Public Schools Board of Education collectively signaled its intention to not close either or both of the two rural schools as a way to make up a projected $1.3 million budget shortfall for the 2011-12 school year at a meeting last Monday at the high school library.

The option to close either or both of Maple Grove or Pine River elementary schools was a matter discussed as an information item. The subject came up as part of projected budget savings PMA Financial Network had made at the request of district administrators. PMA has been working with the district to project how various budget cuts would affect the district short and long-term.

In addition to closing either or both of the rural schools, the board also discussed elimination of the SAGE program that limits class sizes in grades K-3 to 18 at all elementary schools except Pine River and moving fifth grade students into Prairie River Middle School.

Board President Jeff Verdoorn said while the board wasn’t taking any action on the items at this time, they wanted to provide guidance to MAPS Superintendent Dr. Lisa Snyder and other administrators on which avenues they felt would make the biggest reductions in the budget while impacting students the least.

“It is important to understand where each board member stands on various options, some of which may very well be required to facilitate the significant staff reductions needed for this budget,” Verdoorn said.

Because staffing makes up about 80 percent of the MAPS budget, and because student enrollment in the district is expected to drop about 90 students going into the next school year, at least 10 positions will likely be eliminated. In addition, one administrative position that will become vacant at the end of this school year due to retirement will not be refilled.

Verdoorn said he would like to see the board take the same approach it used two years ago when working on reducing the budget shortfall. During that budget cycle, the board approved issuing layoff notices to teachers and staff on a tier system, with the cuts in position needed to reach the minimum projected cuts making up the first layer of cuts. A second tier was added to allow for reductions in state aid below a certain point that budget projections had forecast. A third level of cuts was added as a “worst case scenario” measure.

In the end, MAPS was better prepared for reductions in state aid in the last biannual budget than some other area districts because of this approach.

Because this is another year when the state will formulate a new biannual budget, and with the change in the makeup of the legislature because of the November election, Verdoorn said there is a lot of uncertainty in what funding the district will receive next year. Adding to the uncertainty is the requirement that the district has to issue layoff notices to staff by the end of January under the current union contracts while the state budget won’t be ready until the end of June, if even then.

While the PMA projections show that closing both rural schools would result in nearly $703,000 in savings, mostly in staff reductions, Verdoorn said the district rarely sees the full face value of such savings.

If one or both of the schools were to be closed, the district by default would have to eliminate the SAGE program and move the fifth grade to PRMS to eliminate crowding at the three remaining elementary schools.

“Personally I am against it because one of the things I think makes Merrill Schools special is the community schools,” Verdoorn said.

“I think we all are,” added board member Chuck Bolder.

Verdoorn said that he would like to see the administration work toward the following three tiers of cuts for 2011-12:

Tier I – Eliminate 10 teachers, one administrator and several support staff.

Tier II – Eliminate SAGE, which would result in 12 additional teacher cuts.

Tier III – Additional program and staffing cuts to allow for drastic reductions in state aid.

Verdoorn said that the district has reserved some ARRA money it has received from the federal government that could be used to offset cuts in positions at the Tier III level. The funds would only stay these cuts for one school year, however.

He also said that some programs may need to be reduced or eliminated in the second or third tiers.

Verdoorn said he would like to hold a series of town hall style meetings to get input from the community on how best to approach the cuts. He also did not rule out an advisory referendum to further gauge the public’s preferences in where to reduce the budget.

The town hall format would better allow the board and administration to interact with the audience over the normal board meetings, whose conduct is governed by statutes on sticking to posted agendas.

While most board members wanted to go on record objecting to closing schools at this time, most agreed that the continued structural deficit caused by declining enrollment and declining state aid was forcing them to consider serious cuts in the future.

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