Pelican schools to cut staff, programs
The Pelican Rapids School Board unanimously approved almost half a million dollars' worth of staff and program cuts to the district budget - a painful measure district leaders said could prevent rapidly declining enrollment from dragging the dist...
The Pelican Rapids School Board unanimously approved almost half a million dollars' worth of staff and program cuts to the district budget - a painful measure district leaders said could prevent rapidly declining enrollment from dragging the district into the red.
The cuts will eliminate or cut back the hours of about eight teachers and trim programs such as the elementary school's gifted and talented offering and the summer agricultural program.
"It's very hard because we're a small school and the sense of family is pretty tight," said Superintendent Deborah Wanek, adding of the School Board's Monday vote, "It was a pretty somber meeting last night."
The cuts include one English and two elementary teaching positions as well as reduced hours for math, science, social studies teachers and other staff.
District leaders stressed the importance of making cuts before the district plunges into the red - a proposition that can make unpopular trims a harder sell.
The district started the school year with a seemingly healthy $2 million in its general operating fund.
"People see that kind of money and think, 'It looks like you're pretty well off,' " School Board Chairman Don Perrin said.
But because of declining enrollment and rising costs, the district has to deficit-spend by $800,000 this year. Forty fewer students are projected to enroll in the fall, so deficit spending will likely increase next year.
Pelican Rapids is among roughly 10 percent of Minnesota school districts without an excess levy referendum, according to the state Department of Education, and homeowners pay $38 on average for public schools compared to a $556 state average.
District leaders pride themselves on running a tight ship and still offering strong arts and athletics programs.
"It's a low-spending district," said Roger Worner, a Twin Cities metro area superintendent and consultant who conducted an organizational study of Pelican Rapids schools and recommended at least $500,000 in cuts. "It's been very frugal with its money."
Worner, who's conducted studies of more than 1,000 districts across the Midwest, said declining enrollment has cut sharply into the district's per-pupil state funding.
The district also loses almost 150 students to open enrollment in neighboring districts, an exodus that residents attributed to "concerns about the expanded diversity of the community" in interviews with Worner.
"Every single person we interviewed said that," Worner said. About 30 percent of the district students are minority, many of them non-native speakers of English.
Based on Worner's recommendations, the district will form a community task force to investigate long-term options, including placing an operating levy on the ballot as early as this November.
"We have to cut pretty big this year, and we'll have to cut huge next year if things don't change," said Wanek, who projects a million-dollar budget reduction in 2009.
Several community members appealed to the board to refrain from certain cuts at the start of Monday's meeting, Wanek said.
"It's discouraging, but I think they do understand we only have a limited amount of money to spend," Perrin said. "We really don't have many options."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529