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Moorhead parents talk of school cut solutions as administrators gear up for possible operating levy

Moorhead Public School Assistant Superintendent Wayne Kazmierczak, second from right, addresses questions and concerns from the public Tuesday evening during a forum at the Probstfield Center for Education about upcoming budget cuts worth $4.9 million. (Jay Pickthorn/The Forum)

MOORHEAD - Moorhead residents peppered school leaders with questions Tuesday about projected budget cuts worth $4.9 million - then sat down to brainstorm cost-saving ideas.

About 60 parents and district employees gathered at the Probstfield Center to find out more about the cuts, expected to claim 64 positions in the district.

Administrators spoke about the district's financial predicament, decried insufficient state funding and said they're gearing up to recommend that the school board place an operating levy on the November ballot.

"We don't have a lot of choices," Superintendent Lynne Kovash said after the session, stressing her team will gauge public support before a decision. "We can't keep making these kinds of reductions."

Community members asked a battery of questions in a similar vein: Could there be a way to avoid the layoffs and the projected sharp increase in high school class sizes?

Doesn't the district have property it could sell to stymie the loss of teachers, one attendee asked? The district has two parcels of land, Assistant Superintendent Wayne Kazmierczak said, but needs to consider its long-term growth needs after weathering this rough patch.

Could staff members take pay freezes or reductions? The district is looking into the legality of that, Kovash said.

Teacher and support staff contracts are up for renegotiation this year. Last year, the administration scored a roughly 9-percent increase over two years.

Couldn't the district go after engineers who designed a flawed heating and cooling system at Horizon Middle School, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra energy in the four years before the district set out to upgrade it? The key is that work on an efficiency project is under way, officials say.

"I know what it's like to teach 38 students, and it's very different from teaching 20," said parent and former school teacher Ross Hilgers. "It's a very frightening possibility."

Afterwards, attendees split into smaller groups to brainstorm. They offered a variety of suggestions, from cutting sports programs to e-mailing parents instead of wasting paper on mailings to widening the bus service radius.

Given that personnel accounts for about 80 percent of district expenses, officials said, dodging layoffs would be tough.

Still, parent Katherine Altendorf said she hoped some of the ideas generated at the meeting might help reduce the need to cut so many positions. "It means a lot to me that you're listening to the parents," she told officials, "and thinking outside the box."