Fergus Falls left reeling from latest school cuts
The latest round of budget cuts at the Fergus Falls School District hardly caught the Minnesota community by surprise. The city has been bracing for more than $2.3 million worth of reductions, or 10 percent of the district's budget, since last fall.
The latest round of budget cuts at the Fergus Falls School District hardly caught the Minnesota community by surprise.
The city has been bracing for more than $2.3 million worth of reductions, or 10 percent of the district's budget, since last fall. Back then, the school administration explained the district's recent inclusion in a state in-the-red short list made deep cuts inevitable.
But last week when the School Board approved a lineup of nearly 30 teaching positions that had to go, the downsizing became newly concrete and real. In a tight-knit community worn out by years of million-dollar school budget trims, the news reverberates well beyond school offices and corridors.
"It's a disappointing time," said board Chairman Matt Lemke. "For our board, it's a very difficult time. It's our most difficult job on the board because we know these people."
The reductions include 13 elementary positions as well as special education, art, math and other teachers. The board will decide next month on additional cuts in support and administrative staff.
The 2,580-student Fergus Falls district has lost more than 850 students in the past decade, or about a quarter of its early 1990s population. It's projected to lose another 450 students in the next six years. Superintendent Jerry Ness says the resulting loss of per-student state funding and rapidly rising operating costs have put an enormous strain on the district's finances.
More than $12 million in cuts over the past decade and a 2002 $1.3 million excess levy have not averted a financial crisis.
A report by the Worner consulting firm last year recommended the district become more efficient. District leadership hopes an ongoing overhaul of facilities, financed by a $32.5 million bond voters approved in 2007, will cut operating costs.
In the meantime, even teachers whose jobs were spared worry about more rounds of cuts projected for the coming years.
"The stress level at the school and the frustration are very high," said Judith Gease, president of the Fergus Falls Education Association, the teachers union. "The morale is pretty low, and the people are just tired of it."
Parents also worry about class sizes creeping up, Lemke said. The district won't cut any programs as part of this round of adjustments, but it raised fees for athletics and all-day kindergarten by as much as 100 percent.
For Patrick Connelly, a strong supporter of the district leadership, a more immediate concern is explaining to his son that his beloved elementary teacher likely won't return to the classroom next year. To the boy, she's not only the young woman who taught him to read, but also a friend he rushes to hug at hockey games and the grocery store.
Some of the teachers who have lost their jobs over the years - the equivalent of 80 full-time positions since Lemke joined the board in 1999 - stayed in town, but others left. The School District loses their children, and the community misses out as well.
"When 80 full-time equivalent positions go, that's probably 80 cars and 80 houses that could have been sold," Lemke said. "It trickles down and affects the entire community."
Fergus Falls loses some 60 students to open enrollment in neighboring districts, but parents such as Connelly see the crisis as a call to mobilize and play a more active role in supporting their district. He recently gave a teacher a 15-minute break by playing dodge ball with students as part of an adopt-a-class program.
"It hurts to see large cuts happen," he said. "But we can get through this with everybody coming together. Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before things get better."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529