District 834: Programming changes possible at ALC, Marine and Withrow schools

Programming changes may be coming to Marine and Withrow Elementary, as well as the St. Croix Valley Area Learning Center (ALC) in Stillwater Area Schools to help ease the budget issues the district is facing.

Melissa Sonnek, principal of Marine and Withrow, made a presentation to the school board March 13, as did representatives of Northeast Metro 916 Intermediate School District.

ALC could become part of 916

The board is considering changing ALC programming and handing it over control of the school to District 916.

Don Kirkpatrick, program director at the ALC, found out about the possibility of the switch in a meeting Jan. 16. Other ALC staff found out about the possible change Feb. 24.

St. Croix Valley Area Learning Center is a secondary school designed for those students who meet the Minnesota Graduations Incentive Criteria for at-risk students, and who are 16-20 years old (or 21 for those with a disability) for the ALC North program and at least 15 years old for the ALC 10th grade program. The program offers small classes, individual attention and non-traditional approaches to learning. Students at the ALC have school year round except for August, and eight grading periods throughout the year.

If approved, the proposed partnership would mean Distict 916 would implement its programming and eventually take responsibility of the ALC. No decisions have been made, and conversations about the change only recently started.

“I would like to say that now that conversations have started, I hope that a number of options are explored that will allow us to not only reduce costs but do it in a way that continues to provide a high quality educational option for our students,” Kirkpatrick said in an email after the meeting.

The proposed change, though not yet approved, met some push-back from several parents and staff members who spoke against the change, having just left a meeting with 916 representatives that afternoon. Most expressed concerns for the loss of flexible programming, which has helped their children who face challenges including socio-economic status and classroom needs that the parents and staff feel are met better at the ALC than they would be anywhere else.

“I am proud to serve as an English teacher and president of the St. Croix Education Association,” high school teacher Josiah Hill said. “I was asked to share some thoughts on the recent discussion and decision about programming at the ALC. Our students belong to all of us in the St. Croix Valley. Since these discussions began on Feb. 24 about 916 assuming control of the ALC, countless questions on the process have unfolded or returned with the response that we just don’t know yet. It has created tension among the stakeholders at the ALC, and we simply ask that the ALC gets the same opportunity as Marine and Withrow to work through this process.”

District 916 officials said that flexible programming is available, that day and evening programs are offered, that most staff acquired during this transition remain with the district and that 916 shares the passion for students that teachers in ISD 834 have.

Representatives from District 916 also felt that it would be important to have a process implemented, as well to make sure that if a transition would occur that it would be as smooth as possible. Marine and Withrow elementary schools worked on a plan with parents and teachers for several months to figure out where to cut costs.

Marine and Withrow proposals

Marine is deficit spending at a loss of $134,000 each year. As the district looks to ease budget issues, it asked Marine and Withrow to consider cost-cutting measures that could be taken.

Several parents shared their stories about why they chose each of the schools for their students and said they felt a way to cut costs would be to tell more parents and friends about their school to draw more students to them. They’d like to increase marketing of the schools and possibly turn Marine and Withrow into theme schools that focused on community service and a STEM-based (science, technology, engineering and math) theme school.

Cost cutting ideas presented by Principal Melissa Sonnek included what they called high-, medium- and low-resource options.

“When it comes to budget reductions, as tough as it is, sometimes it’s necessary,” Sonnek said. “Reducing resources is in no way a reflection on the talented educators that work at our schools.”

High-resource options totaled in at $42,444.50 in cuts and included:

• Reducing reading intervention staff by one: $8,984.50

• Reducing paraprofessional jobs by three hours: $11,210

• Combining smaller classes: $22,000

“These high-resource options create a cost savings but also include challenges,” Sonnek said. “The challenges would be less para support and reading intervention help.”

Medium-resource options would total in at $72,164.03 in cuts and include all the cuts above, plus the following:

• Sharing a technology para between Marine and Withrow: $9,000

• Using the principal as an educational coach: $21,069.03

This would result in less tech support for the schools and more responsibility for the principal, which Sonnek said she was more than willing to take on.

The low-resource option would result in teacher reductions and increased class sizes totaling $44,500 and include all of the other options as well.

“We’re not excited about the low-resource option, and we recommend that the board would look at the medium option,” Sonnek said.

Withrow’s budget options looked similar.

The Withrow high-resource option totaled $20,194.50 in cuts:

• Reducing intervention staff by one: $8984

• Reducing paraprofessionals by three hours: $11,210

The medium resource option totaled $35,868.01 in savings by:

• Sharing a tech para with Marine and Withrow: $8,650

• Have the Withrow principal serve as a part-time instructional coach: $7,000

The low-resource option is something that Sonnek said couldn’t be done here but would include reducing staff by $44,500, which would result in a class size of 46, which Sonnek said would impossible to do.

“It’s a delicate balance between efficiency and maintaining and increasing enrollment to help us going forward,” Sonnek said.

Decisions on these proposed changes are expected to be made at the March 27 board meeting.

Contact Avery Cropp at avery.cropp@ecm-inc.com

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