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Perham School District cuts $498,000

Impassioned pleas from arts parents saved the Perham High School orchestra program; but fine arts faculty was reduced to a half-time instructor; and the school band will be an after-hours function.

The board also voted to place a levy referendum on the ballot this fall--asking the taxpayers for more money for school programs and operations.

More than 170 district residents packed into the high school cafeteria March 19 as the Perham-Dent school board prepared to finalize nearly $500,000 in budget cuts.

The Perham-Dent school board listened to more than two hours of testimony at the March 19 meeting, as nearly 200 packed into a meeting on proposed budget cuts.

The Perham-Dent school board listened to more than two hours of testimony at the March 19 meeting, as nearly 200 packed into a meeting on proposed budget cuts.

This round of cuts has been the most devastating to programs since the slashing of expenses began last year. After last week's meeting, the total sum of the budget cuts is nearly $1.4 million in the past 12 months. School officials strived to limit the first two rounds to "non-academic" budget cuts--custodial, transportation, supplies, etc.

But students would now be "wounded" by the cuts, acknowledged Superintendent Tamara Uselman. Administrators and board members reached a stage where "there was nowhere else to go" but to begin reducing educational programs, she added.

German language and gifted-talented programs will be reduced from current levels, but but many parents were relieved that the programs were at least partly retained.

German class will continue in the high school. A half-time art position will also continue in the high school, but art has been eliminated from the middle school.

The conclusion of the marathon meeting was ironic. Moments after approving the list of cuts, the board voted to go after more money--to replace some of the very programs that had just been cut.

By unanimous vote, members agreed to begin work on promoting a levy referendum for the November 2008 ballot.

The process of planning for the referendum began quickly, with a "visioning" session, with the public invited, on March 25.

At the entrance to the March 19 meeting, "arts parent" Cindy Rastedt greeted people and conducted a head count.

"Hello...Are you here to support the arts?" she would ask during her "entrance poll." By the time the meeting was underway, there were 178 people in the room--and several dozen more trickled in during the four hour meeting.

Not since parents and students gathered to debate whether or not to restrict certain books in the library, two years ago, had there been such a large gathering at a Perham-Dent school board meeting.

After taking testimony from dozens of parents, the board began voting on the list of cuts.

Nearly all the motions carried by a 6-1 vote--with board member Dan Nodsle voicing protest votes.

"I'm the one who wants to walk on the wild side," said Nodsle, hinting that he would rather challenge the state for more education funding. Nodsle has frequently criticized the governor and lawmakers for what he contends is woefully inadequate funding.

School administrators' original plan to cut nearly $200,000 from arts, music and gifted/talented programs generated the most discussion.

After the March 19 meeting, the board gave administrators the assignment of reducing music positions by the equivalent of one full-time staff members--but keeping orchestra as a program during the school day. With band numbers in decline, the administrators and music staff will be investigating whether the band can be incorporated with the orchestra. There will also be ideas for rebuilding the band program.

Students and parents both spoke in support of the arts and language programs.

"I'm a product of all the extracurricular programs," said Candace Lueben. "I've seen the difference they can make."

"You don't see a lot of 50-year-old basketball and football players," said Carl Weber, who has five children in the school district. "But you do see violin players, cello players...and 50-year-olds involved in the arts."

Increasing concert admission prices and student participation fees were suggested by Weber as a way to "get behind what you believe in."

"Don't cut the soul out of our school," said district parent David Oien.

Parent Todd Nygaard quoted a number of statistics that support arts education. Students with art instruction are four times as likely to earn academic honors; three times as likely to be voted a class officer; three times more likely to participate in science fair; and three times more likely to read for pleasure, as well as for school.

"I don't have a lot of money, but I'm willing to pay what I have to retain arts programs," said Nygaard, who supports a local tax increase to generate more revenue for school operations.

"Cutting off your nose to spite your face" is how parent Dawn Edvall described the cuts. She said her family was in the position of being able to choose any school when they relocated.

"I don't know if Perham would have stood out," if it weren't for the range of offerings, she said. "By reducing and eliminating, what's the draw for parents to come to Perham?"

Perham graduate Beth Rose brought a unique perspective to the discussion. She was a student during an extensive series of budget cuts in the 1970s.

"For two years, I had three study halls in a row," said Rose. Today, she drives every day to Perham to take advantage of the school's curriculum. Now, she is concerned that the budget cuts will reduce those programs.

Though difficult, the decisions the board made were probably necessary, said parent Craig Swanson, adding that he was pleased that the board listened at the March 19 meeting and made some adjustments.

"I'm not excited about an increased levy, but that's probably what it is going to take," said Swanson.

Parents and students aren't the only ones affected by the cuts.

Three paraprofessionals will be cut or reduced to half-time, for a savings of $50,000.

"People aren't sleeping at night, wondering if they will be losing their job," said school para staff member Wanda Kupferschmid.