Residents sympathetic to budget woes

Those at 2 town hall meetings offer suggestions, show willingness to help

Independent School District 834 officials got sympathetic ears from about 100 district residents who attended two town hall meetings Tuesday and Wednesday at which school officials outlined proposed worst-case scenario $11 million budget cuts if the upcoming levy isn’t renewed in the fall.

Residents at the meetings held at Stillwater Junior High School Wednesday and Oak-Land Junior High School in Lake Elmo Tuesday, met in small groups and shared their ideas with the district. Wednesday’s meeting was attended mostly by parents with students in the schools.

ISD 834 Superintendent Corey Lunn said during his presentation that only 40 percent of parents in the district turned out to vote in the last two levy elections. He added that he hopes getting information out ahead of November’s vote allows conversation and informs voters. He also hopes the district’s communication efforts give residents time to understand what’s at stake and get them to the polls.

Withrow Elementary School Principal Lynn Bormann shared concerns from her group. She said her group couldn’t pick one proposed budget cut they were most concerned about so she had them choose a couple.

Class size was their greatest concern while student programming impact was another concern. The group also was concerned that students with a higher need would fall through the cracks if larger class sizes and student support services are cut. Her group also believes the Alternative Learning program would be hurt by proposed transportation cuts.

“We likened this to the ‘would you rather’ board game. Whether you’d like to choose option A or option B with B being worse than option A,” Bormann said. “Hopefully we can pass the levy and pursue the strategic plan going forward.”

Other groups offered similar reactions. Some opposed a four-day school week that is among the proposed changes. Others asked about electives possibly being slashed while sports such as hockey and football would remain untouched. They also addressed fee increases for clubs and school groups. One person said their group felt it would be cheaper to pass the levy than face increased fees.

Some groups offered suggestions to possibly boost revenues and improve learning. Bormann’s group thought the engineering efficiency idea was helpful and wanted to see if students could get involved in alternative energy projects to increase efficiency and learn more about those areas.

Stillwater Junior High School Principal Chuck Ochocki’s group asked about advertising and if it’s possible to advertise when people opened their electronic devices and connected to the Wi-Fi in school buildings. Other parents asked if was possible for parent groups to be trained in writing grant applications for their schools. Others added that they would be willing to volunteer if it could help teacher’s case loads.

When it came to the question of the levy amount, up for board approval April 11, those in attendance wanted clarification about what the district seeks. Since the school faces a $4 million to $6 million shortfall each year due to unfunded state mandates, attendees asked if the $11 million was the total levy amount needed.

“The $11 million isn’t an increase, and a renewal doesn’t cost anymore than it already does right now, but the total amount will be determined by the board at our March 2 meeting.” Lunn said.

Attendees encouraged the board to ask for the total amount needed to maintain the level of operation the district needs and allows for future planning.
Feedback between the groups was similar the two nights, according to District Communications Director Carissa Keister.

“Class sizes and student programming were the main areas of concern.” she said, “Last night we seemed to have more levy conversation as they started to do at the end of the night about what questions should be asked and what outreach should be done to those in the community.”

A complete report on the two town hall meetings will be given to the board at tonight’s 7 p.m. meeting at Stillwater City Hall.