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School budget cuts: Reality poised to sink in

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River Falls, 54022
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

Preparing for harder times next year, school administrators -- building by building -- have stitched together $380,898 in cuts that would lay off seven or eight employees and eliminate or gradually drop a number of classes.

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Among the cuts: Phasing out German and dropping that foreign language and Japanese and French for middle schoolers next year; laying off wrestling and track assistant coaches; eliminating the spring play; and reducing hours for some teachers and support staff.

The budget reduction package will get a public hearing from 6-8 p.m. Monday in the Meyer Middle School library. Copies of the plan will be available. After the presentation, people can react and ask questions.

There are several wild cards: 1) The recently passed federal stimulus bill that gives billions of dollars to states, which are then allowed to distribute a portion of that money to counties, cities, towns and schools.

"We don't know exactly what we've gotten yet," River Falls School Superintendent Tom Westerhaus said. "It's still fuzzy. Solid, reliable information has been hard to come by."

The exact amount that flows to River Falls and how those funds can be spent are not clearly defined.

Another wild card is Gov. Jim Doyle and the Legislature. They must agree on the next two-year (2009-11) budget, including the amount of state aid each year for public schools.

Meanwhile, Westerhaus and Finance Director Chad Smurawa say the budget reduction package is ready for the public and school board to review. The board will vote on it Monday night, March 16.

In January, the board agreed to use $310,000 kept in reserve and to make $370,000 in budget cuts to plug a projected $680,000 deficit for 2009-10.

Principals, with input from staff and school PTOs, along with central office administrators then crafted a patchwork of cuts totaling almost $381,000.

Highlights:

  • Elementary schools: Reducing the hours of three health aides, paid volunteer coordinators and paraprofessionals. Eliminate one third grade teacher at Greenwood (because of a smaller class of current second-grade students). Cut back on supplies. Total reduction: $106,667.
  • Middle school: Eliminate foreign language instruction for Japanese, German and French, but increase Spanish instruction from two to three years. Also add more teaching time for pre-engineering instruction. A phy-ed teacher position will be cut in half while an art teacher position will be nearly cut in half. After the additions, the total reduction is $55,446.
  • High school: Reduce by two-thirds the German teaching position. It's estimated the German language program will be gone in two years. Reduce by more than half a math position and a library paraprofessional position. Raise student band fees from $50 to the $75 level of athletic fees. Increases will be paid out for French language and phy-ed instruction. After the additions, the total reduction is $72,205.
  • Renaissance Academy (alternative high school program): Reduction in staff travel, textbooks, class supplies, equipment replacements and organizational memberships totaling $5,097.
  • Central Office: Cutbacks in printing, trash pickup, CESA consultations, professional travel, supplies, employment advertising, the minute takers at meetings (administrators will now do this) and reduce the part-time hours of a clerk. Total: $38,717.
  • Transportation: Clerical staff and bus repair supply cuts totaling $16,943.
  • Nursing: Reduce supply budget by $979.
  • Extracurricular: Eliminate the German Club and its advisor, the spring drama play, and three assistant coaches for middle school wrestling, high school wrestling and high school track. Total: $13,546.
  • Technology: Reduce new equipment replacement purchases by $5,730.
  • Summer school: Fewer swimming classes will be offered. Reduction: $2,975.
  • Special ed: Relocating the Harbor program to the high school. Now located at the River Falls Academy, Harbor is aimed at high school-age students with behavior problems. Eliminate two aides and reduce CESA consulting services. Total: $62,593.

    Westerhaus said reductions were based largely "on need and numbers." Certain classes in the upper grades, such as in the foreign languages, attract fewer students than others.

    In some cases, staff members will take on new tasks to cover for the loss of a colleague, aide or clerk. With less travel, some professional training will be done "in-house" within the school district.

    Westerhaus said that even with the budget cuts, district standards for class-size ratios remain unchanged.

    He and Smurawa described the budget reduction package as painstaking and decentralized, meaning that it relied on input from many sources.

    Even so, Westerhaus said administrators are willing to listen to feedback to their proposals at the March 9 public hearing.

    Other factors

    While planning for next year's $680,000 deficit, school officials figured that because of the poor economy, state aid would drop from the usual 3% increase to 2%.

    However, the latest word from Gov. Jim Doyle is that thanks to the recently passed federal stimulus bill, the River Falls school district may receive a 2.9% increase in state aid.

    The 2.9% increase with federal money may come with strings attached - another wild card - such as that a portion must be used stimulate the economy and be energy or construction-related.

    Should the district get a 2.9% increase instead of the anticipated 2%, Smurawa said there will be an extra $290,000 available for capital improvements. Two important ones are:

    1) Retrofit the interior of Westside Elementary and Meyer Middle School with latest energy-efficient lighting. Cost estimate: $60,000 to $80,000.

    2) Repave and redesign for a safer traffic flow the Westside Elementary parking lot and modernize the parking lot lights. Cost estimate: $250,000.

    Westerhaus said even if this federal money is available, it might still take longer to learn what is allowable for spending.

    Two schools that won't see renovation projects are Greenwood Elementary and the River Falls Academy. These are the district's oldest buildings. They require such costly upgrades that the school board has yet to decide their long-term fates.

    The wild cards in the school district's finances include other unresolved issues.

    For instance, the federal stimulus bill appears to set aside extra money for school districts in the areas of special education and Title 1 (extra math/reading help for elementary school students).

    For River Falls, that could mean an extra $300,000 for special ed and an extra $78,000 for Title 1.

    Westerhaus said he doesn't know if this money must be spent in those areas, if it can be used to deduct what the district spends on those programs, or if it can also be applied to defray general fund expenditures.

    While the federal stimulus money may cushion the district's financial plight, Westerhaus believes current budget reductions must go forward.

    "With so many uncertainties about the economy and our future enrollment, the district must be fiscally responsible and make the necessary budget reduction for 2009-10," he said. "While the economic stimulus dollars would be a bonus for some building maintenance projects, our budget struggles are very real and need to be faced head on with the proposed cuts."

    Westerhaus also pointed to another local problem for River Falls: A two-year trend of declining enrollment. In the long run, fewer students also means less state aid.

    Westerhaus added that the federal stimulus is only expected to last for two years. If the economy doesn't turn around, school district and state government finances will remain bleak.

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