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Published February 28 2010

Minnesota schools prepare for cuts

Some Minnesota school districts are gearing up for another round of budget cuts amid uncertainty about state funding.

Several area districts that suffered recent defeats at the polls are considering another crack at passing operating levies. One, Pelican Rapids, will conduct a mail-in ballot referendum in May.

Most districts are factoring in a state aid cut in their budget planning for next school year – even as Gov. Tim Pawlenty has pledged leaving education unscathed in his efforts to close a gaping budget gap.

“It’s just a waiting game,” said Breckenridge interim Superintendent Warren Schmidt, whose district approved $100,000 in reductions this week. “It’s a terrible, terrible game. We’re playing with teachers’ lives, and it’s very discouraging.”

Area districts bracing for cuts are beset by a rural Minnesota double whammy: declining enrollment and stagnant state funding. The 780-student Breckenridge district lost about 20 students this year, and projects to lose as many next fall. The cuts include the equivalent of 4.5 teaching positions. The district cut $500,000 in 2009.

The cuts package was the more sparing of two reduction scenarios Schmidt presented to the board.

“We’re not in a bad financial situation,” said Board Chairman Brett Johnson. “We don’t want to jump the gun and cut where we don’t need to. But we want to stay fiscally responsible.”

Perham-Dent is looking to trim $330,000 from its budget, which would likely involve teacher layoffs and a class-size increase. After cutting support staff, supplies and other expenses in recent years, Superintendent Tamara Uselman said, “We are now at the door of the classroom, and we have to make reductions there.”

If projections for next fall hold, the 1,440-student district will have lost 100 students over three years.

Pelican Rapids needs to cut $400,000. Two full-time elementary teachers and part-time physical education and English teachers are poised to lose their jobs. The district is also looking at activity-fee hikes.

Most area districts are assuming a state aid cut in budget planning: 1.5 percent in Perham, 2 percent in Moorhead, and 3 percent in Pelican Rapids.

More clarity will come with a new state budget forecast next week, but educators are skeptical the state will be able to close its $1.2 billion budget gap without affecting K-12 aid.

Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said he is advising districts to come up with several budget scenarios assuming cuts from 0 to 5 percent.

“Our best-case scenario is no new money,” he said. “Districts have to make their best guess.”

Officials in Perham and Moorhead, where levies failed last fall, might try again in November. In Pelican Rapids, school leaders decided they don’t want to wait. They’re proceeding with a $700 per-pupil mail-in ballot vote, the only way to hold a vote before November. That’s $400 less per pupil than the district requested previously.

Residents will have to return ballots by May 3, when the high school will also host a polling site.

Several reduction-weary districts are delaying decisions and hoping they can take a breather from cutting this year.

In Moorhead, leaders decided to dip into the district’s fund balance in the event of state aid cuts.

Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton, which has recently seen healthy enrollment gains, will also bypass major cuts.

In Lake Park-Audubon, Superintendent Dale Hogie said that, if not for looming state aid cuts, the district would be well-positioned to dodge reductions this year. District voters passed an operating levy last fall, and teachers and administrators took a salary freeze.

“My concern is how we manage additional cuts in revenue,” Hogie said, adding the district would likely hold off final decisions until March or April.

In Ulen-Hitterdal, where voters supported a $1,990 per-pupil levy last fall, Superintendent Allen Zenor said he plans to avoid budget cuts, even if it means borrowing to absorb cuts at the state level.

“There may be some minimal reduction we can look at,” he said, “but by and large, we believe we first must look at preserving the integrity of the school system.”

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