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Moorhead School District may slash positions

Proposed cuts to the Moorhead School District's budget for the 2009-10 school year.

MOORHEAD - Switching to a four-day school week, doing away with fifth-grade orchestra and freezing district salaries - those are some of the cost-cutting tactics Moorhead public school employees suggested in a recent brainstorming spree.

The district sets out to trim $4.9 million, or roughly 10 percent of its budget for the coming school year.

One thing is near-certain: The district will have to let scores of teachers and support staff go. The district might cut up to 64 positions, based on a tentative outline Superintendent Lynne Kovash shared with board members this week.

That prospect had board members concerned about a steep jump in class sizes, especially at the high school.

"We don't want to throw out everything we value in trying to salvage the budget next year," cautioned board member Bill Tomhave. "There has to be another way."

School officials stress the district is in the early stages of planning. They face at least two major unknowns: the level of state funding and a possible boost from a proposed federal stimulus package.

The $4.9 million in cuts, which roughly translates in $1,000 less per student, equals the budget shortfall the district projects for next year. Officials say state funding has failed to keep pace with rising expenses, and the district is rapidly burning through its reserve fund. Unless officials act decisively, it could land in the red as early as next year.

The administration solicited savings ideas from all of its employees, and Kovash unveiled a laundry list of suggestions Monday, from freezing district salaries to reducing paper use. There's also the option of asking taxpayers for help.

The administration's preliminary proposal includes 64 positions across employee groups, reductions in textbook and supply expenses, cuts in activities and higher fees for the remaining ones. The last time the district faced such a sizable trim was in 2000, when it shed 60 positions.

Kovash said the cuts could result in high school classes swelling to an average of 40 students, from about 28 now.

The Minnesota Department of Education couldn't provide a state class size average. Fargo Public Schools spokeswoman Betsy Beaton said the district aims for 26 students maximum in core high school classes.

Some school board members were taken aback by the class size numbers, and Kovash said teachers had expressed concern as well: "It's such an emotional issue, and intuitively, you feel if you have more kids in the classroom, you can't reach out to all of them."

On Feb. 9, the administration will present a first draft of its budget cuts plan to the board. It will solicit community input Feb. 10.

On Tuesday, Governor Tim Pawlenty spared schools in his $2.5 billion spending cuts proposal, but school leaders do not rule out cuts later in the legislative session. On the other hand, the House version of a federal stimulus proposal would allot the Moorhead district $2.7 million.

"That's why we're so tentative right now," Kovash said. "This is our best-guess scenario."