Tough budget choices ahead for school board

MARSHALL – Members of the Marshall School Board continued discussing preliminary 2013-2014 budget issues on Tuesday. This time, they were joined by Marshall teachers concerned that proposed budget cuts could hurt struggling students.

Marshall Superintendent Klint Willert said the district is faced with a projected deficit of $675,000. At Tuesday’s meeting, he presented a list of possible budget adjustments that could mean more than $400,000 in savings for the district.

“It’s just a proposal. Nothing is being acted on tonight,” Willert said. A work session was planned to discuss the budget, and final action would be taken at the board’s June meeting.

The possible savings Willert presented included reaching an agreement to waive a mandate to set aside two percent of the district’s general fund for staff development. Others included staffing changes, like not replacing a social work position and a Title I position affected by a federal sequester.

The Title I program is focused on helping low-achieving and disadvantaged students. Willert said eliminating the Fast ForWord reading program, and reorganizing the district’s reading coach and Response to Intervention programs were also possibilities.

Reorganizing the RtI program would mean Title staff will be responsible for reading interventions at the elementary level, Willert said.

“I’m a little concerned about cutting Title I,” said school board member Matt Coleman. “It looks like you’re giving them more to do,” with fewer staff, he said.

“I would say that would be accurate,” Willert said. He said the board will need to discuss and decide what it would be comfortable doing.

Board member Karen VanKeulen asked if the board could hear other options in the upcoming work session. Willert said it was “a tough question to answer.” He said the suggestions he presented were some of the easier options to implement, without cutting into core education services.

“I think we’ve got to look at a lot of different options,” said board member Curt Kovash.

“If we lose that safety net for young children, it will affect us down the road,” said board chairman Jeff Chapman.

During the meeting’s public forum, district teachers urged board members not to cut the Title I position. The proposed cut would reduce the attention Title teachers are able to give individual students, and make it harder to help the kids who are struggling most with reading, they said.

A request for an extended leave of absence from third-grade teacher Kristy Thomsen was also addressed during public forum. Thomsen said she had requested a five-year leave of absence from teaching to care for her son. District administration recommended that Thomsen’s request be denied.

Minnesota statutes say school boards may grant a teacher an extended leave of absence without salary if they have been employed by the district for at least five years, and have at least 10 years of teaching service.

During the public forum, Thomsen said she understood that it wasn’t recommended to grant her leave request because she didn’t meet the statutory requirements. However, she asked board members to reconsider, and said in the past another district teacher had been granted extended leave without meeting requirements.

Willert acknowledged that the teacher Thomsen spoke of had been granted a leave of absence. However, he said, “I wouldn’t consider it a precedent.” He also said he was not aware of the state requirements at that time.

Extended leave requests are determined on a case-by-case basis, Willert said. Factors considered in granting or denying a request can include how difficult it is to fill a given teaching position, he said.

The board passed personnel actions as recommended by school administration, including the denial of Thomsen’s leave request.