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Public hearing on school cuts generates spirited discussion

While there were various opinions about program cuts, most everyone at Monday night's public hearing understood that belt tightening and other changes were needed to solve the school district's finances.

The district has projected a $680,000 deficit next school year.

The school board will use more than $300,000 from money saved in reserve. Building principals were asked to cover the rest through cuts.

A few dozen people showed up Monday at the Meyer Middle School library to respond and offer suggestions.

High school senior J. T. Schuweiler was one of three students who spoke passionately in defense of maintaining Japanese in the curriculum.

Next year at the middle school, Japanese, French and German exploratory classes would be dropped. Spanish instruction would be increased.

"We're moving away from being culturally diverse," said Schuweiler, adding that offering Japanese brought a valuable exposure of Asian culture to River Falls students.

Having taken five levels of Japanese, Schuweiler hopes to serve someday in the United Nations or foreign embassy. He said focusing on Spanish reduces what little cultural diversity is locally available.

Meyer Middle School Principal Mike Johnson said that Spanish is "relevant to our culture" and said foreign language choices are largely student driven.

Next year's numbers, Johnson said, show this year's 8th graders have signed up for the four languages this way: Spanish, 109; French, 32; German, 18; and Japanese, 9.

Johnson said a look at other topnotch school districts show that many are changing how they teach foreign languages. Some have opted for new ones that are becoming more important, such as Chinese.

High School Principal Elaine Baumann said that while she "loves to brag" about offering four foreign languages in River Falls, "We also have to start looking at economies of scales and efficiencies...and be judicious about the use of our dollars."

School Board President Dennis Behnke said the tentative plan is a complete phase out of German language instruction in two years.

A woman in the audience asked about the disruption caused by eliminating a third grade teacher next year at Greenwood. While a smaller third grade class is forecasted, some Greenwood students will shift to other schools.

The questioner said this seemed contrary to the school district's promotion of "building community" through "neighborhood schools."

Greenwood Principal Nate Schurman said laying off a teacher was painful, but that the 12-13 students being relocated will actually live closer to the new schools they will attend.

"It's a difficult move to make. Will these students be impacted? Yes," he said. "But they may even be impacted positively."

Virginia Hilden, part-time school bus garage clerk, warned of the risks to children by having her hours reduced for a $9,943 budget savings.

Hilden said she gets many afternoon calls to sort out concerns about kids getting on the wrong bus or missing their bus.

"It's quite a task to get everything straightened out," she said. "I'm not here to save my job but to save that position for the safety of our children."

There was no one from transportation to respond to Hilden's statements. She was given an ovation.

Many other comments and questions raised at Monday's public hearing were:

  • Review school busing guidelines. One man wondered if parents shouldn't have to drop off kids at "rural collection points" to reduce the school district's sprawling mileage and fuel costs.
  • A woman asked why city students are bused. She said when she was younger, some 25 years ago, she and her fellow students in the city all walked to school.
  • Stop idling school buses so long at games and activities. Again, this could save fuel costs.
  • Could foreign languages be taught more "Montessori-style," with older students mentoring to younger ones in a "cooperative teaching environment."
  • Do more school district promoting to attract more families and students, especially through open-enrollment options that allow children to attend schools outside the districts where they live.
  • Tighten up utility costs: Turn down thermostats and high school air conditioning; conduct more energy audits; install more energy-saving lights; turn off more lighting at night. Perhaps install solar thermal collectors to heat the high school pool.
  • Reduce or change the use of high school sprinklers so water isn't wasted during sunny, hot day hours.
  • Conduct fundraisers to support troubled programs, like the foreign languages. Another suggestion was to start "endowments," where people could invest in school programs and these funds would grow and be available when needed.
  • Ask for more volunteers from people laid off who are on unemployment benefits and have time and skills that could benefit schools and students.
  • With pay freezes more common in the private sector, negotiate similar freezes with school district bargaining units. Such wage freezes might preserve more school jobs and programs so they wouldn't be cut.
  • Try to lower property taxes and the cost of building sites for new homes. In River Falls, these are too high and discourage young families with school-age children from moving in.
  • Sell the school district's costly new but seldom used tow truck.

    Reactions, feedback

    In response to audience questions, board members said this round of cuts may not be the last. An early projection shows as much as $700,000 may have to be cut from the 2010-11 school year budget.

    The financial picture is shaky because:

  • Instead of increasing moderately as it has for several years, the school district's enrollment has declined slightly for two years. This results in a drop of per-pupil state aid. A slumping housing market riddled with foreclosures will likely continue the enrollment decline.
  • With the recession, state aid to public schools is uncertain and not expected to keep up with operating costs, of which nearly 90% is tied to employee wages and benefits.

    Board Member Manny Kenney was pleased Monday's public hearing.

    "I felt it was good, constructive dialog," he said. "Making reduction is difficult. The genuine concerns expressed and positive suggestions made will help the board. It is apparent we all share the common goal of acting in the best interest of the district's children."

    Kenny's colleague, Steve Rivard, said he hopes the public input won't stop: "What was most impressive to me was the group's level-headedness, along with their willingness to brainstorm ideas about how to confront these types of shortfalls in the future.

    "It is my hope that some of these same citizens will decide to participate in the strategic planning process which should identify our educational goals and priorities...and provide guidance on how to deal with these budget problems that are sure to continue."

    Alan Tuchtenhagen, another board member, agreed and was encouraged by the range of ideas.

    He said that the soon-to-be formed strategic planning committee will lead to a broader view of what the school district should emphasize and what it can afford.

    "(It) will help us set priorities so we can focus our resources," Tuchtenhagen said. "If we have to do this again, we likely will not be making across-the-board cuts. We will have identified those areas that are most important to us."

    Board Member Rellen Hardtke urged people to "advocate for public schools" with their lawmakers representing them in Madison.

    Hardtke said a "fairer funding system" is needed. She said that a sound public education "benefits everybody" in the long run, creating a higher standard of living and less crime.

    Superintendent Tom Westerhaus said there might be some relief ahead when funds are finally made available from the recently passed federal stimulus bill.

    This Monday evening (March 16) at its regular meeting the school board votes on the proposed $380,898 budget reduction package.

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