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Morris Area board votes to retain teaching position

The Morris Area School Board voted at the May 21 meeting not to cut full time teaching position in the elementary but superintendent Rick Lahn said the board could be considering such a cut next year.

"It's my job to keep an eye on the budget," Lahn said of why he recommended considering a cutting af full time teacher or full-time equivalent position (FTE).

The district's special education costs continue to increase while state and federal funding for special education costs has not kept pace, Lahn said. After the meeting, Lahn said the only reason the district is not looking at more possible cuts for the 2018-2019 school year is because several veteran teachers retired and were replaced with teachers with less experience at a lower cost.

Without those retirements, "We'd be sitting here (discussing) cutting tonight," Lahn said after the meeting.

The school's financial and personnel committee had reviewed the singular cut which could reduce the number of class sections in fourth grade from four to three. MAES principal Shane Monson had said if the cut was made he'd probably reduce fourth grade from four sections to three and increase the class sizes from 20 to about 25 and 26.

The two committees were neutral on the proposed cut and did not recommend a cut or retaining to the school board, Lahn said in his report to the board. The cut would have saved the district $55,000 in 2018-2019.

For those who voted against cutting a teacher, the desire to maintain small class sizes and the possible negative impact on open enrollment into the district and the recruitment and retention of teachers were reasons to keep the position.

The financial benefit and ongoing financial concerns were the reason one board member, Kurt Wulf, voted against keeping the position.

While board member Jen Goodnough said she respects the financial issues that led to the proposed cut, "This is less than 1 percent of the budget. It concerns me that one of the ways we save money is around teaching positions. I think cutting an FTE is the last resort," Goodnough said.

Board member and personnel committee member Kurt Wulf said the savings of $55,000 is for one school year but the overall savings would be much more over 20 to 30 years. "We're not just voting for next year," Wulf said."If we keep a teacher...for 20 to 30 years, the savings is more like $2 million."

In response to a follow-up question from the Times, Wulf said on May 23 the $2 million included the cost of salary, insurance benefits, district retirement contributions and related costs over 30 years of employment for of a teacher. Wulf said he took an average cost for a teacher in 2018 and multiplied that by 30.

As a parent, "I can easily see the benefits of a small class size," Wulf said. But, the increase in class sizes in fourth grade are an acceptable level based on various studies and reports he's seen, Wulf said.

If the district has the money to pay for the position in 2018-2019 then it should keep the position because that's what is best for students, board member Mike Odello said.

Board chairman Dick Metzger said 80 percent of the district's budget is staff and faculty costs. "We're running pretty lean on the other 20 percent," Metzger said. The district, the board and committees weigh all options to reduce costs but in this case, the cut of a teacher was presented as a fiscally responsible option.

Metzger has been on the board for at least 10 years. "The majority of those years we were in deficit spending and cutting," he said. "I come from a different perspective which is why I am a little more cautious."

Yet, Metzger said during the discussion he wasn't sure which way he'd vote. When the board did vote, he didn't formally vote but after the meeting, he said he would have voted not to cut the position, should there have been a tie vote.

Goodnough, Odello, along with board members Robyn Van Eps and Anthony Ekren voted not to cut the position. Board member Doug Stahman was not at the meeting.