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Barnesville School District looking at budget cuts

BARNESVILLE - The Barnesville School District, a haven of financial health in recent years amid Minnesota funding woes, is gearing up to trim its budget.

Just a year ago, this growing bedroom community's School Board - buoyed by a healthy fund balance and stable enrollment - was signing off on a new $300,000 parking lot and planning to ask residents to fund a $15 million school renovation.

The recession put the renovation on hold. Now the possibility of a roughly 3 percent state funding cut led the administration to recommend the reductions. Earlier this spring, school leaders counted on unchanged funding when they decided against cuts.

District leaders aim to come up with about $320,000 extra in next year's general fund, which would involve, among other things, asking staff to return half of their professional development money and work for free one day next year.

"Is this the ideal situation? No," Superintendent Scott Loeslie said. "Is it manageable? I believe it is, at least for one year."

An emotional meeting on Tuesday to discuss the cuts drew a couple of dozen parents and staff members. The board, which approved the recommended cuts in a preliminary vote, will have a final vote next week.

The administration recommended reductions in supplies and a delay in purchasing a new elementary social studies curriculum. It also called for eliminating a coach, a part-time food service employee and a media specialist position. The district would drop its speech program and wouldn't replace a retiring elementary teacher.

In his agenda notes, Loeslie anticipated questions about the parking lot upgrade and the recent purchases of residential lots by the district. The district bought several properties to satisfy a Department of Education green space requirement that stalled the facility renovation.

But instead, a couple of parents appealed to the board to spare the speech program. Speech coach Alissa Nibbe also spoke up against the cut, to the sobs of students who accompanied her.

"They are an amazing team, and all we want is another chance," said Nibbe, adding the program was making gains in participation.

School Board members cut funding for the program but committed to keep it going if private funds become available.

Parents also expressed concern about class sizes at the elementary school in light of the position loss there. Loeslie said the elementary would see a modest class size increase, to 21.8 students on average. Fifth grade classes will increase from 26 to 28 students.

Parent Jaye Abarr, whose daughter will be in the fifth grade next year, said she worries about her transition from a 19-student class: "You just hear how the fifth-graders are the more challenging group because there are so many of them."

Board members urged residents to contact their state representatives and call on them to oppose school funding decreases. As member Jeff Stangeland put it, "Their cuts are the reason for our cuts."