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Board halts steps toward 4-day week

Vote is 3-2

March 11, 2011
By Kremena Spengler Staff Writer

NEW ULM - On a 3-2 vote with two board members absent, the District 88 School Board on Thursday effectively halted, for the time being, steps in the direction of a four-day student school week.

A switch to a calendar based on some four-day weeks for students, with teachers continuing to work five-day weeks, was a major part of a list of money-saving measures proposed by administrators and presented by Superintendent Harold Remme.

Remme showed the board several versions of this list - each version with an approximate value of, respectively, $900,000, $1 million, $1.1 million, $1.2 million and $1.3 million.

The board is seeking to achieve budget savings next year in the $900,000 to $1.3 million range.

The newest administrative estimate put the value of the switch to four-day weeks at roughly $135,000 a year (or, more specifically, a range of $114,000 to $158,000).

Two board members, in particular, expressed concerns about implementing the concept at this time.

One of them, Susan Nierengarten, noted that when discussion of the possibility started, the expectation was that it would help achieve some 20 to 25 percent of the needed budget savings.

Upon further consideration, however, it appears that the savings would be closer to 10 percent.

The issue, Nierengarten pointed out, is which method of saving money would inflict the least harm to students.

She said that teachers would likely not be able to teach as many concepts in four days, as they would in five, even if total instructional minutes remain the same.

Nierengarten also expressed a concern about rushing the plan, in the absence of other than anecdotal data about its impact.

While acknowledging that the board may well need to come back to the concept another year, she said:

"It seems to me it would be a mistake to rush the change, especially since the savings would not be a large as originally thought."

A like-minded fellow board member, Patti Gramentz, acknowledged the concept's potential for invigorating teachers' thinking, by giving them more time to collaborate on instructional improvement.

However, Gramentz emphasized the burden the plan would impose on families with younger children - whose day-care needs and costs would increase because of the switch.

On the opposite side of the vote, board member Steven Gag noted that High School Principal Mark Bergmann spoke highly of the plan - believing it can provide beneficial change to instructional delivery, regardless of any savings.

Board member Don Deslauriers agreed - stressing it gives the district a chance to be "a front runner in something new."

Also, proceeding with the process would lead to gathering public input, proponents noted. Because the board may have to make the change anyway in the future, the public input meetings that would result from action now would help make a more informed decision.

The remaining board member present, Carol Ackerson, appeared conflicted until the final moments of the vote, but ended up voting "no," stating her preference to not "rush it."

Board members Patricia Hoffman and Duane Winter were absent from the meeting.

Prior to discussing the change, the board heard reports from principals about their respective staffs' reaction to the concept.

The reports indicated a mixed staff reaction, with many teachers appearing conflicted.

Other ideas on the list of potential cuts presented by administrators include:

An early retirement incentive (a value of $125,000, achieved by replacing five experienced teachers with less experienced, hence "cheaper," teachers).

Fund transfers ($70,000 to $115,000, depending on specific scenarios).

Reducing textbooks purchases ($70,000 to $125,000).

Reducing supplies and equipment purchases($14,000).

Reducing the equivalent of six or seven teaching contracts (three at the high school; two at Jefferson Elementary; and one or two at Washington Elementary).

Miscellaneous items such as: energy efficient lights; charging for a calendar publication; eliminating a professional learning team and the STABLE program; a $10 fee for participation in FFA/FCCA; switching from two to one student council and yearbook at the high school; combining cheerleading and dance into one program; and eliminating incidental busing to the former middle school for rehearsals (a combined $33,400).

Cutting a custodial position ($40,000).

Reducing the activities director's contract ($2,285).

Charging a fee to park in the high school parking lot ($5,000).

Moving remaining seventh and eighth-grade activities to Community Ed (and making them fee-based, $10,500).

Delaying capital projects ($50,000 to $250,000).

Reducing the scope of the Title One program ($28,000).

Eliminating a first-call sub position ($50,000; this position resulted from the closure of the Juvenile Detention Center; a senior tenured teacher was cut too late in the year for him to "bump" a less senior teacher; as a result, the senior teacher was given the sub job).

Nierengarten suggested a new concept not included on the administration's list - a board commitment to cut net extracurricular activity costs by $100,000.

The net cost of extra-curricular programs, after subtracting revenue, is $400,000, she said.

While these programs are very important to families and the district, they are not the district's primary mission, which is classroom education, said Nierengarten.

By committing to cut extracurricular costs by the equivalent of two classroom positions, the board would be reiterating its primary mission, she added.

The cuts could be achieved by eliminating low-participation programs, raising fees and raising ticket prices.

Nierengarten's suggestion did not elicit immediate response.



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