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Moorhead School District cuts spark inquiries

Students walk to their buses at the end of the school day Tuesday at Moorhead's Horizon Middle School. (Michael Vosburg/The Forum)

MOORHEAD - Since the Moorhead School District announced it's gearing up for $4.9 million in budget cuts last month, the news has sparked anxious questions.

Many parent queries - raised at a district community forum last month, on The Forum Web site and in e-mails and calls to the paper - share a general theme: Is there any way the district could ward off proposed layoffs of more than 60 employees and the projected spike in high school class sizes? Can Moorhead, which is considering a levy referendum this fall, prevent further cuts? The Forum compiled and attempted to answer some of the most common questions:

Q: Could school district employees take a pay freeze or pay reduction to prevent some layoffs?

A: The district enters negotiations with teachers and support staff this summer. Kris Thompson, Moorhead's School Board chairwoman and a veteran of salary negotiations, says what would make a bid to freeze salaries more complicated is that the district finalized two-year contracts for nine other employee groups, such as administrators, last summer: "It's hard to open up contracts that have already been settled."

Minnesota Association of School Administrators President Dan Brooks says that "leapfrog effect" has played out in budget-cut-plagued districts across the state. Besides, teachers' unions have made a vocal case their members shouldn't "have budgets balanced on their backs."

Still, Bob Lowe of Minnesota School Board Association says the pay freeze idea has gained traction recently. And a handful of school districts have embraced a "soft" freeze across employee groups, meaning staff still advances across seniority lanes.

The Moorhead district has estimated an across-the-board freeze would save $1.2 million a year.

With a $3 million deficit projected for the 2008-09 school year and about $5 million for 2009-10, why did administrators get a roughly 9 percent pay raise over two years last summer?

Moorhead Superintendent Lynne Kovash said at the time of salary negotiations, school leaders hoped the state would deliver on an education funding increase more in line with skyrocketing expenses.

"We had quite a few discussions about the fund balance and that we would have to do something about it," said Kovash. "We said there was going to be a day of reckoning."

The district was also looking to stay competitive at a time when schools face fewer applicants for administrative positions. The district heard from only six qualified applicants for its curriculum director position last year.

What cost-reduction measures has the district taken in recent years, and should it have attempted to balance its budget sooner?

The district cut more than $1 million of its roughly $50 million budget last spring, trying not to impact students in the classroom. The district also cut professional development money for several years.

Thompson said making cuts affecting the classroom would have been an indefensible proposition while the district could still tap into its once healthy fund balance: "Should we have started cutting three years ago? I think there was hope the state would come through with its end of the deal."

Is the district considering switching to a four-day school week?

Kovash said the district will collect community input on such a shift later this year. The change makes more sense in a sprawling rural school district like MACCRAY, the state's four-day school week pioneer, where transportation is a major expense.

MACCRAY Superintendent Greg Schmidt said his district was on track to save about $100,000 in this first year on the four-day schedule. The change has made it harder for students to juggle school and extracurricular activities.

What is the value of land the district owns in Moorhead, and why is it important that the district hold on to it?

The district owns 80 acres in Oakport Township and 40 acres by Horizon Middle School, with a total estimated market value of $394,000, according to County Assessor data.

"Selling the land would only provide money once," said Kovash. "It would be a short-term solution without looking at the future of the Moorhead community."

Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland said pinpointing the possible location of future schools allows the city to plan better - and helps as a selling point in growing Moorhead.

Minnesota districts adopted generous retiree health benefits in the 1980s to help in recruiting job applicants. Has Moorhead attempted to renegotiate these benefits?

Mary Cecconi of the statewide advocacy group Parents United for Public Schools said that since the mid-1990s, a slew of Minnesota districts renegotiated retiree health benefits for new employees.

The Moorhead district will spend about $740,000 on retiree health benefits this year. It recently sold a roughly $10 million bond to help cover its obligations.

Kovash said the district has not negotiated any major changes to its retiree benefits package in the past decade, but the issue will be part of negotiations with teacher representatives this summer.