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Mila Koumpilova, Published April 27 2009

Worker cuts cause division in Minnesota school district

The planned elimination of 3.5 teaching positions and a school counselor has riled up Frazee and Vergas.

Residents in the 900-student Minnesota district split over a series of levy referendums and an attempt last year to revoke the current $1,000-per-pupil levy, which passed in 2007 after four failed votes.

The $224,000 in budget cuts have exposed new fault lines this spring: between Superintendent Deron Stender and the local teachers’ union and within the School Board, whose members are deeply divided over staff reductions.

District critics and some teachers say the cuts go against pledges of small class sizes the administration made in campaigning for the levy. School leaders counter that the cuts are evidence they’re responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars.

“We get a lot of, ‘Well, what about the referendum dollars?’ ” says board Chairwoman Dana Laine. “We’re spending them to maintain what we have. They’re not a cure-all for everything.”

In a 4-3 vote, the Frazee-Vergas board recently approved the budget cuts on first reading. A final vote is slated for next month. The district is trimming teachers in special education, math, social studies and English, as well as the counselor.

The cuts will increase the average high school class size from 16 to 24 students, which, Stender says, is still “a darn good ratio,” and below that at many area districts.

For years, the district has featured a class-size oddity: considerably smaller classes at the high school compared to the elementary, where studies show students benefit most from learning in smaller groups. The average elementary class will remain at 24.

Stender says the district doesn’t face a pressing need to cut costs. But he brings up the possibility of state funding cuts in the current legislative session. Either way, the district could better spend the money on, say, updating its curriculum. This fall, the district might even consider slightly reducing its local levy.

District critics question why Stender did not propose the cuts before the 2007 vote and accuse him of breaking a promise to keep class sizes small.

“To cut the teachers after we paid the extra money to keep them is not right,” said parent Mary Lepisto, who last summer collected signatures for a petition to place a levy revocation vote on the November ballot. The School Board rejected the petition after members deemed its statement of purpose vague.

Stender concedes the teacher cuts at the high school could have happened a few years ago.

“I need to take ownership and responsibility of that mistake, and I do,” he said, adding, “I didn’t look hard enough at what we can reduce.”

But he says that even factoring in the $224,000, without the $1 million the levy brings each year, the district would burn through its $800,000 fund balance in a year. And he insists he only promised keeping class sizes unchanged at the elementary level.

“I don’t feel the increased class sizes are ideal, but we need to be proactive when it comes to the future,” said district parent Amy Erickson, who campaigned actively for the levy. “What we promised people is that we would spend the referendum money wisely.”

Some teachers in the district, however, argue the marked increase in class sizes threatens to harm the quality of learning. Theresa Fett, president of the Frazee Education Association, says seventh-graders would find themselves in math and science classes of 27 students as they navigate the tricky transition to high school. She says the slimmer class offerings will force students to make tough choices.

“It hurts achievement, discipline issues increase, and we lose the personal nature of the small school,” Fett, a school counselor, said of a class increase, adding, “If you don’t have to cut, why would you?”

Tensions have flared up between Stender and the teacher’s union, whose leaders charge him with disregarding teacher input on a variety of matters, such as the end of a mentorship program for new teachers last summer.

“We joke around here that we have to read the paper to find out what is going on,” said English teacher Mary Olson. “So many decisions have been made without any input from us.”

Stender’s supporters say he’s simply had to make unpopular decisions to adjust to leaner times.

Divisions have also plagued the School Board. Laine says she can’t recall a 4-3 vote on a budget proposal in her time on the board.

Still, all sides are united in their desire to move beyond the negative press the district has garnered in local media. And they hurry to point out the district has remained strong in the face of divisions: It was among an increasingly small group of area districts that made Adequate Yearly Progress under No Child Left Behind, and its honor rolls swelled this year.

Laine hopes board members will bond at a May meeting to discuss long-term goals: “I hope we’ll get a sense of common purpose and direction, which now we don’t seem to have.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529