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Morris Area School Board approves 2008-09 budget

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

The Morris Area music program will not be reduced by a half-time teaching position after the district school board approved its 2008-2009 budget Monday night.

The 0.5 full-time equivalent position, equal to about $21,000 in the budget, was among administrative recommended cuts for next year.

The music department suffered a loss when long-time teacher Dot Vick resigned this spring.

Overall, the board approved a budget of about $8.4 million in revenue and just more than that in expenditures with the music department reduction removed.

The district's budget is mandated by the state to be finalized by July 1 annually.

The proposed budget produced a surplus of about $11,000, but by removing the cut, the district now will face a shortfall of about $10,000.

The district might have a way to make that up, however. Fourth grade teacher Brett Thorfinnson resigned his teaching position in a letter accepted by the board Monday. If Thorfinnson's position is filled by a first-year teacher, the district would save an estimated $11,000, according to Superintendent Scott Monson.

While board members agreed the budget is tight, it's not nearly as dire an outlook as in previous years. The board has had to reduce the budget by almost $1.5 million in the last four or five years. And in February 2008, Monson's projections signalled that the district could be facing a shortfall of about $88,000 for 2008-2009. Since that time, projected enrollment has held firm, even increasing slightly, and the Minnesota Legislature approved a one-time education aid increase for 2008-2009 that will net Morris Area about $55,000 additional dollars. The state also is allowing districts to move that money from capital outlay into operations. The board approved Monson's recommendation that about $32,000 of that money be used to offset the shortfall for next school year.

The board vote to restore the half-time music position was 3-2, with Laura Carrington, Lory Lemke and Mark McNally in favor, and Brent Fuhrman and Mike Schmidgall against. Board chairman Kurt Gartland and John Luetmer were not at the meeting.

Lemke made the motion to restore the music position, saying that even if the schedules of the remaining teachers were shuffled, the reduction would still mean fewer opportunities for children.

In response to Carrington, who asked how the department could operate even at status quo without the half-time position, high school principal Mike Coquyt and elementary principal Brad Korn both stated that it would be difficult to maintain the same level of music offerings if the position were cut.

They had met with music teachers and concluded that sections likely would need to be combined and that lesson times would have to be reduced.

"It's not an easy thing to do when you look at all the (music) programs we offer and try to trim things off," Coquyt said.

Fuhrman said he supports the music program, just as he supports other disciplines in the school, but that he was wary of restoring the position because of the precarious nature of school funding.

Morris Area needed to make a mid-year budget correction two years ago when enrollment dropped. While enrollment is holding steady now, any drop off could mean more severe cuts in the future since the budget has little leeway.

"We're not way above water," Fuhrman said.

Music teacher John Kleinwolterink and support staffer Becky Hennen both addressed the board before the budget discussion to ask that the position be restored in the final budget.

Hennen's two daughters came through Morris Area music programs and both still retain their love of music and play their instruments. She also lauded Vick as the kind of talent that a program doesn't often find and benefit from.

"Think about the music program," she said.

The music department has been eroded over the last several years by budget reductions and that it's affecting morale, Kleinwolterink said.

"It's music's time," he said.

Morris Area is still producing outstanding musicians and ensembles, but that might not continue if its music budget is continually reduced, he said.

"Anything less (than restoring the cut) is setting your students and our children up for failure," Kleinwolterink said.

In other board business:

• The board discussed a proposal in the athletics handbook which states that a student-athlete could be penalized because of the actions of a parent.

Athletic Director Mary Holmberg told the board she checked with another district that implemented the policy and the district found a reduction in negative experiences involving parents.

Holmberg said the district uses a set procedure for handling disputes between coaches, players and parents. Coaches talk with players, and parents are brought into the discussion if needed. The athletic director then gets involved if the dispute can't be resolved, and the principal or superintendent intervene as a last resort, she said.

But Carrington said she disagreed with the proposal.

"I have a hard time punishing kids for the mistakes of adults," she said.

The district has had a few incidents of "aggressive behavior" involving parents in the last year or two, Fuhrman said, and coaches and players shouldn't have to put up with it.

Monson said an analogy would be if a parent disputed a grade given to a student, and if the situation escalated the student was docked a grade.

"We all know that wouldn't happen," he said.

• Thorfinnson informed Korn and the board in a June 20 letter that he has accepted an elementary position at Minnewaska schools.

• Donna Lehman submitted her retirement after 10 years in the Morris Area district's food service.

• MAHS teacher Sharon Martin resigned as Student Council Advisor.

• The board approved the hiring of Caleb Greene to teach fifth grade.

• The Morris Area Community Education program was awarded a $10,000 grant for after school programs through the General Mills Champions for Healthy Kids Nutrition and Fitness initiative.

Morris Area's program was among 50 funded from 1,000 applications.

• Korn reported that elementary enrollment as of May 2008 was 430. Coquyt reported that high school enrollment is at 480.

Coquyt also told the board that 88 students have registered for College In High School classes for fall semester. The CIHS program drew 82 students in 2007-2008.

Many of the CIHS students, who earn college credits and high school credits through the program, also register for more than one class, he said.