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UPDATE: School district approves budget cuts

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

To erase a projected budget deficit, the Morris Area School Board opted by a narrow margin for less deficit spending and almost $89,000 in budget reductions.

The board entered its special meeting Tuesday with two options to take care of a deficit of almost $132,000 for the 2009-2010 school year.

The board voted 4-3 for a plan that calls for deeper budget reductions to erase the deficit.

But the board did so, as it does almost every year, with very little information about how state funding for education will shape up. The Minnesota Legislature is supposed to wrap up its 2009 session next week, with lawmakers and Gov. Tim Pawlenty taking very different positions on how to deal with a substantial budget shortfall. State school districts are required to finalize budgets for their upcoming school year by the end of June.

District administrators on Tuesday proposed two plans, an Option A that calls for about $69,000 in budget cuts combined with about $62,000 in deficit spending to take care of the shortfall. Option B, which was approved by the board, calls for deeper budget cuts totaling almost $89,000 combined with about $43,000 in deficit spending.

Board members Kurt Gartland, Mark McNally, Jamie Solvie and Stan Wulf voted for Option B. Laura Carrington, Lory Lemke and Dick Metzger voted against the option.

The consensus of the board, however, seemed to indicate that it would like to keep instructional cuts as small as possible, depending on the final funding plan hatched by the Legislature and Pawlenty.

Eight program areas would be affected under the Option B approved by the board, the majority of which would come from instructional areas. The preliminary cuts proposed are: Eliminating one-half of a full-time music position; reducing one-sixth of an art position; reducing business education by one-sixth of a full-time position; reducing FACS by one-sixth of a full-time position. Other budget cuts include eliminating or restructuring the girls golf program, reducing junior high or sub-varsity coaching staffs, and reducing special education paraprofessional staff.

The board will consider reducing the positions of teachers Nancy Grotjohn, Jody Snow and Deb Swezey, and terminating the contracts of Michael Odello and Larry Syverson.

Superintendent Scott Monson said the budget options were based on the state maintaining current funding levels for the next two years, and that other circumstances could affect the final budget.

""If revenue sources change, things could be brought back," he said.

Board member Laura Carrington said she preferred option A since it cut less from instructional areas, and that if any new money came in, it should be earmarked for reinstating electives.

"It always makes me nervous when we eliminate choices for kids," Carrington said. "Even while enrollment in some classes is low, it doesn't mean they're not important."

Board member Lory Lemke made a third proposal to not make any of the $44,000 worth of instructional cuts. Lemke's rationale was that if the state cuts deeply into aid, the district's entire fund balance would likely be gone and the district would be facing drastic restructuring. Fund balances are the primary function in a business, but that educating students is the most important in a school district, he said.

"I mean this seriously, I don't think $44,000 is going to help us if we lose $500,000, which is the worst-case scenario," Lemke said. "(Not cutting instruction) would give us one year of educational value that kids would not have had if we make the cuts now."

McNally, Wulf and Gartland echoed Carrington's sentiments on reinstating instructional needs if revenues allow, but they also said current conditions make cuts necessary.

"If long-term, there was a brighter future, I wouldn't be opposed to using more of the fund balance," Wulf said. "I see it as a cloudy future."