Superintendent News

This column will address the difficult topic of budget reductions.  First, let me begin by saying that budget reductions are likely one of the least favorite responsibilities of administrators and school boards.  If the programs on a reduction list weren’t important, we wouldn’t be providing them in the first place.  Furthermore, there are deeper ramifications to reductions than simply balancing the bottom line.  People are impacted.  Reductions affect our staff (both those whose jobs are reduced and those who remain), our students and our families.  

A quick clarification: the district’s budget reductions and the community’s consideration of a new 3-5 elementary school are completely separate from one another.  The special election is for a building bond to construct a new elementary school.  Our budget reductions are tied to operating expenses - essentially, staffing and programs.  Voting down the elementary does nothing to improve operating expenses.  In fact, one could make the case that operating a single facility instead of two is more efficient and consequently provides operational expense savings.

One of the major responsibilities of school administration and school boards is to manage budgets in a fiscally responsible manner.  At one point, with the district coming out of statutory operating debt, it was important that money be set aside to restore a healthy fund balance.  Through years of strong fiscal management, that goal has been attained.  Moving forward, it is the district’s philosophy to provide the very best educational experience we can for our students while operating under a balanced budget.  

It is also important to remind our community that we are one of the lowest funded school districts in Minnesota when it comes to state aid.  In FY22, we ranked 464th out of 508 public and charter schools.  Why are we 464th?  Many communities in Minnesota have passed operating levies which provide their local school districts with additional funding to support staffing and programs.  We do not have a voter-approved operating levy in place.

Budget work is ongoing throughout the school year, however, work on the next year’s fiscal budget begins to ramp up in January.  Assumptions are made based on both revenue and expenditures.  One of the biggest drivers of revenue is student enrollment projections.  On the expenditure side, assumptions are made on everything from utility increases to repercussions from unfunded state mandates from the previous legislative session. The list of general reductions is publicized at the first board meeting in April.  The second April meeting lists specific people impacted.  This process is carried out every year.  The district has some level of reductions every year.    

This year’s reductions fall into four main categories:  1. General reductions; 2. Rollbacks to iQ Academy; 3. Reallocation of resources; and 4. Reductions due to loss of federal funding.

General Reductions

The school district needed to make $325,500 in reductions to balance the budget.  The following areas were directed to make reductions proportional to their percentage of the total budget and those reduction amounts are broken down as follows:  District–$40,500; District Special Education–$29,000; Lincoln–$4,500; McKinleyAdams–$47,000 (combined); Cleveland–$37,000; Middle School–$42,000; High School–$102,000; ALC–$8500; and Activities–$15,000.  

There are a number of factors that play a role in creating the initial budget deficit including general inflation, service contract increases and the requisite contract increases for our own staff to remain competitive in the labor market.  During the course of the pandemic, a significant number of people left the labor force permanently.  There weren’t enough workers left to fill the void.  It wasn’t confined to education, to the best of my knowledge, all industries are experiencing staffing shortages.  However, to combat the shortage, employers increased compensation to draw employees.  To remain competitive and to attract and maintain an outstanding staff, we have had to do the same.  The contract settlements, although necessary and deserved, have been greater than our revenue increase from the state.   

Rollbacks to iQ Academy (Online School)

This happens every spring.  iQ enrollment peaks in March at approximately 700 online students.  By the start of the next school year in September, that enrollment number will have dropped to around 500 students.  If we didn’t do the rollbacks, we would be significantly overstaffed to start the new school year.  Instead, we rollback contracts and those online teachers gradually gain those sections back as enrollment grows over the course of the school year.  

Reallocation of Resources

We have been faced with new challenges.  Post COVID, many of our students have needed additional reading and math support. To provide this, we are adding a Title I teacher next year.  We already subsidize our Title I program by approximately $200,000 beyond our federal allocation. To cover the cost of a new Title I teacher, we reduced the number of regular classroom teachers by one.  There are pros and cons to this approach.  On the negative side, it means class sizes at one of the grade levels increased slightly.  On the positive side, we have another specialist to provide learning support for students who are struggling.  

In addition, finding substitute teachers - especially for our youngest students, has been an ongoing struggle.  To cover the classroom, we are forced to pull a reading or math interventionist away from their normal duties.  This means that our students who need and depend on those support services go without them.  Pairing down regular classroom teachers freed up resources to hire two learning support positions that will double as substitute teachers when we are unable to find a substitute to cover the class from our community.  This need occurs far more frequently than many people might expect.  What do the changes mean for elementary class sizes?  This is our current projection:

Kindergarten

1st Grade

2nd Grade

3rd Grade

4th Grade

5th Grade

18.44

21.43

23.88

24.29

23.00

24.00

Loss of COVID Revenue

Finally, the pandemic saw schools benefit from one-time federal allocations to help support unique student needs while we navigated the impact of COVID-19.  We used a portion of the funding for the following one-year positions:  1. One full-time ALC counselor serving 85 students; 2. One family outreach specialist; and 3. Two academic support positions at the elementary school.  Those dollars must be spent by this coming September.  The district knew at the time these positions were created that they would only be for one year.  School districts across the United States are making reductions to positions that were funded using COVID dollars.  We are no exception.

These reductions do have an impact - there is no way to avoid that.  The high school will see a half-time reduction to its REACH position which is a student support program.  The loss of one counselor and a family outreach position also provided student support.  That said, we continue to provide a great deal of services for our students.  Between school counselors, mental health professionals through a contract with Lakeland Mental Health and REACH, the district invests over one million dollars annually to support student health and wellness.  This amount does not include the cost of our school nurse staff.  

These enrollment projections and student to counselor ratios are for the 2024/25 school year:

Middle School Enrollment Grades 6 - 8 High School Enrollment Grades 9 -12

Students:  552 Students:  801

Counselors:  1.5 Counselors:  3

Ratio:  368 to 1 Ratio:  267 to 1

The American School Counselor Association recommends an optimal ratio: 250 to 1.  In Minnesota, the average school counselor to student ratio in 2022/23 was 544 to 1.  Nationally, the average student to school counselor ratio was 385 to 1 with preK-8 school counselors at 737 to 1.  This information came from the National Center for Education Statistics and was found on the American School Counselor Association website.  

We are in the process of adding a new half-time position through Lakeland Mental Health to be housed at Lincoln School next year. Lincoln School will also have a full-time building level principal who has an educational background in early childhood and work experience in special education.  The majority of our specialists will also be located within Lincoln School, including our assistant special education director who is an expert in early childhood education.  

Within KSS, we will have a .67 REACH position at the middle school and .5 REACH position at the high school. Both the high school and middle school started student advisories this year.  Students at the high school will have a single advisor for their 9-12 school years.  The advisor is a resource, advocate and support for each student and an adult who knows them well. Our PE/health department also addresses mental health as part of the curriculum.

Would we like to do more?  Absolutely! But, we need additional resources to provide more services.  In the meantime, we are engaged in discussions with area organizations in order to seek creative ways to connect services to our students and families.  The school district recognizes and accepts its role in promoting the health and well-being of each child we serve.  It is also essential that we, as a community, view the care of every child as a shared responsibility.  It is my belief that the most effective models for student support embrace an asset-building model involving multiple agencies, community stakeholders and families all working together on behalf of our children.