School Notes

Harsh measures expected in response to budget cuts

Superintendent Carol Johnson will announce her proposal to contend with $30 million in budget cuts at the next school board meeting, Feb. 12 at 4 p.m.

After reducing this year’s budget by $25 million through a variety of painful measures — including eliminating over 200 staff positions and voting to close three schools next year — the district must now cut more than 4 percent from its budget for the 2002-2003 school year.

Eliminating transportation for certain high school students, increasing class sizes by one student, freezing non-teacher wages — these are just a few of the options being considered by the School Board and Johnson, who said that she is "deeply troubled by the budget challenges that the district faces."

Johnson recently announced that, given the district’s grave financial situation, she could not accept the $30,000 salary increase approved by the Board at its December meeting.

David Jennings, the district’s chief operating officer, said that choosing among the preliminary options — which also include cutting all transportation for athletics and community education and increasing the walking distance from 1.5 miles to 2 miles for high school students — will not be easy.

But, he said, "In the midst of all this, a boldness must be called for." Jennings added that there should be no "sacred cows" among the budget reduction options.

To elicit community input to the proposed budget reductions, the district held two public hearings in late January, one each at Washburn High School and Edison High School. The district also received 2,500 surveys from parents, community members and district staff, said Melissa Winters, a communications liaison for the district.

After Johnson announces her proposal, the School Board will discuss the options, said Winters, and then vote on the proposed cuts at their Feb. 26 board meeting.

Winters added that families should keep an eye out for what happens at the Feb. 26 budget meeting because it could impact their school choice letters, which will be mailed out Feb. 15.

"One of the proposed options is to send 4,000 children back to their community schools," said Winters. "So, we might have to send out new school choice letters depending on what happens on Feb. 26."

Group formed to study open areas has not met yet

The group, made up of parents, neighborhood organizations and school principals, that formed last December to study open-attendance areas has not met yet, said Bob Wedl, head of policy and planning for the district. "We are still trying to get the best data on the city and where kids are now and where families will be."

Families from open-attendance areas have no designated community school for their children. Last year, parents from Open Area #38 – Kingfield and East Harriet -started working closely with district officials to come up with a solution. The School Board offered a short-term fix: Those families with children entering kindergarten were allowed to identify three choices – two of the choices had to be community schools, while the third could be a magnet – on their school request cards instead of the customary two. Families were guaranteed one of their three choices if they turned in their school request cards by January 15.

Many open-area parents say they are frustrated because the three-choice guarantee was intended as a two-year interim plan, and yet, more than a year later, the district is seemingly no closer to solving the open-area dilemma.

Wedl said that the goal is to implement a plan in the fall of 2003. "So, we want to bring recommendations back to the School Board later this spring," he said. Wedl said that all options are still on the table, including redrawing boundaries in order to assign every household a community school and possibly splitting up Kingfield.

"It could well be that each of the open areas could come up with different options," he said. "Some of them would say we’d like to be aligned with some other area, but folks in Kingfield probably would say the opposite."

After the group convenes, Wedl said, the district will hold community meetings to elicit public input. He said there is no date set for the first meeting.

"We’re still gathering student information right now," he said. "We want to make sure we have good information about where kids are going to be."