MAPS budget ‘at crisis point,’ BoE, administrators to seek public input

As the Merrill Area Public School administration and Board of Education look to start assembling the budget for the 2011-12 school year – and identify at least $1.3 million in cuts in the process – they will be turning to the community to help guide them through the process with at least one Town Hall style meeting on Jan. 6.

MAPS Superintendent Dr. Lisa Snyder said the district is at a crisis point, especially with a new make up in the state legislature dealing with a budget deficit that may see steep reductions in funding to K-12 education in the next biannual budget. With the uncertainty in what funding MAPS will receive from Madison, and the continuing pressure placed on the district budget from declining enrollment, Snyder is working with her administrative team to identify over $2 million in cuts to give the board some flexibility to handle a “worst case scenario.”

Snyder said some of the possible solutions will be difficult to recommend, and may be painful for the public to accept.

“I think on Dec. 20, I will bring a little broader recommendation to the board. At this point, with the Board’s decision to go to a Town Hall style meeting on Jan. 6 to discuss some of the bigger issues such as moving fifth graders to PRMS, continuing the discussion with the community about the possibility of closing rural schools or eliminating departments at the high school; quite frankly, that’s the point we’re at, so the conversations have to be had,” Snyder said.

She said given the position the district is in financially the possibility that either Pine River or Maple Grove school may have to be shuttered to balance the budget may have to be looked at again.

“I understand that the board may not be interested in closing schools, or that seemed to be the way the discussion went on Nov. 22. But quite frankly, we’re at a crisis point here where we have some decisions we have to make that are too difficult I think for the board or the administrative team to make without the community’s input,” Snyder said.

In addition to the town hall meeting, the board and administrators may also seek public input with either a survey or an advisory type referendum to rate the possible scenarios that could be used to reduce the budget.

“I think we will look at the level of attendance and participation at that meeting and then decide our next steps,” Snyder said.

School Board President Jeff Verdoorn says the public’s attendance and participation at the meeting is crucial.

“The challenges facing our school district remain very serious and require the ongoing engagement of our entire district community,” Verdoorn said. “We want any decision about the budget to be completely transparent and want community members to be a part of the process.”

Transparency has been a recurring theme in the year-and-a-half since Snyder came to MAPS, and now is when all the information she and her team have provided the public pays off.

“We have certainly opened up our budgets, our records, all our information, all our contracts to the public through the fiscal advisory process and anyone else who, through open records, has asked for that documentation,” she said. “It’s quite clear to anyone who looks closely at our data that we are at a crisis point and that big decisions have to be made. Although the schools are part of this community and they are owned by the community, we need them to help us move forward.

“I heard the board say that nobody wants to shut down an elementary school; I don’t want to close an elementary school. But we can’t take it off the table,” she added.

Snyder said that staff reductions look to be inevitable for the 2011-12 budget. How many teachers and other staff are trimmed will depend on several factors. Like they did two years ago, the district will use a three tier approach to trim at least $1.3 million from the budget, while at the same time positioning itself to absorb even more cuts, depending on what happens in Madison between January and June when the new biannual budget is due to be released.

Because of current labor agreements with the three unions representing teachers, custodians and secretaries, layoff notices have to be issued by the end of January to anyone in positions targeted for elimination. The district then has until the last day of school to issue recall notices to those individuals who will not be let go. Most of the targeted positions will be in the first two tiers of the reduction plan.

“The Tier I cuts, will equal $1.3 million and those have to go forward regardless. Then we will have Tier II cuts, which will be reducing or eliminating SAGE, and that will only happen if the state eliminates SAGE funding or reduces it to such a level that it is no longer a viable option for us to participate,” Snyder said. “Tier III will be another $300 – $600,000 in the case that they balance the budget without giving K-12 any increase or maybe a $100 per student increase rather than $200.”

If the increase is only $100, the Tier III cuts would have to be in the neighborhood of an additional $300,000. The full $600,000 would be a worst case scenario triggered by a zero increase in per student funding from the state.

“Right now we are struggling especially with those Tier III cuts because that’s where the rubber hits the road. It’s closing a school or shutting down a department,” Snyder said.

If all three tier cuts are needed, over $2 million would be eliminated from the budget next year. At the Nov. 22 board meeting, it was stated that up to 22 positions could be eliminated. Some, such as an administrator position at the Central Office and a secretarial position at the high school, have already been identified. The rest the administrative team and the board will have to wrestle with between now and the end of January, when the layoff notices have to be issued.

Because the district will not start negotiating new labor contracts with the three unions until spring, any budget savings that may come from concessions can’t be counted on in the budget at this time.

The town hall meeting will be held Jan. 6 at the high school auditorium, starting at 6 p.m.

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