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School budget reductions pass

School board members expressed frustration and regret March 22 but unanimously passed a $366,600 reduction package to balance next year's budget.

The savings will come from all grade levels and the central administrative office. Other savings will come from buying one less school bus, and raising music instrument rental and high school activity fees.

And there will be fewer paraprofessionals, middle school band lessons, math and reading specialists, and high school electives, including an end to Japanese foreign language after next year.

School board member Manny Kenney, running unopposed in the April 6 spring election, called the 2010-11 budget reduction package part of a "long and painful process for all of us."

The reduction package was crafted over several months by administrators and principals with input from teachers and staff. A large crowd at a March 8 public hearing spoke for preserving the level of paraprofessionals, middle school band lessons and Japanese program.

One modification to the reductions was made by board member Stacy Johnson-Myers. This would allow next year's juniors and seniors the chance to take Japanese III, IV and V under the high school's "Youth Options" elective offering.

The budget reduction package calls for only Japanese II next year before the program ends the following year. The idea was to allow this year's Japanese I students a chance to get two years of a foreign language as required by most colleges.

The extra Japanese levels III, IV and V would be a combined class next year. High School Principal Elaine Baumann said the proposal would be "fair to those students now taking Japanese."

Because the extra Japanese class came with a $9,000 price tag, Baumann said the money would come from the high school's "building budget" for next year and probably affect technology purchases.

The Johnson-Myers proposal regarding the extra Japanese class also passed unanimously.

Earlier in the evening, Japanese teacher Jo Dougherty made information available about salary-assistance grants for Japanese language classes taught in the U.S.

The grants come from the Los Angeles-based Japanese Foundation, backed by the Japanese government, to promote cultural understanding and exchange between Japan and other countries.

Such a grant would pay a maximum two-thirds of a Japanese teacher's salary and benefits for two years.

"There are funds available to help out," Dougherty told board members. "There are solutions...I urge you to consider it."

However, board members were unwilling to seek the grant fund because of the decision to phase out Japanese after next year.

Kenney defended the board's actions, including those who say the reductions would diminish the school district's reputation for academic excellence.

Kenney said other school districts are in similar, if not worse, binds and made these points:

  • Without approving the budget reductions, the district would be operating in the red next year.
  • While the district has a multimillion-dollar reserve fund, the money is used as "cash flow" for payroll obligations and other bills that prevents the need for short-term borrowing with interest payments.
  • The school district has kept its favorable teacher-student class ratios, kept the alternative Montessori elementary and Renaissance high school programs, has a robust Advanced Placement program for aspiring high school students, and is adding an engineering high school program.

Responding to public criticism that the district is top heavy with administrators, Superintendent Tom Westerhaus said his check of school districts statewide puts River Falls right in the middle, meaning it has an average number of administrators.

Westerhaus added that River Falls administrators, including principals, were the only employee group who took a pay freeze in their contracts this year. (Administrative benefits, however, were not frozen and did increase.)

Also Monday night the school board:

  • Recognized high school senior Matt Schwalen, son of Chris and Tom Schwalen, for Matt's second place finish in a regional ethics essay competition sponsored by the Rotary. Schwalen wrote the essay, called "Hit and Run, in Kim Craig's Principles of Writing class. Matt's essay developed from an accident he recently had and reported in the school parking lot. Schwalen won $500 from the Rotary for his essay.
  • Approved a new contract with the district's 23 bus drivers that increases wages and health and other benefits by 5.94% over the next two years. Average hourly pay for 2009-10, depending on how many years bus drivers have worked, will range from $17.18 to $18.44 and be retroactive to last fall when the school year started.
  • Approved a new contract for paraprofessionals that calls for an overall pay/benefits increase during a two-year period of 6.31%. Average hourly pay for 2009-10 ranges from $12.50 to $14 and will also be retroactive.