After a decade's worth of declining enrollment and belt-tightening, the Hastings School District is planning deep cuts — about $1.6 million worth — to its proposed 2014-15 budget.
The actual deficit for next year is about $3.4 million, and about half of that is projected to be made up by dipping into reserve funds.
Cutbacks are necessary because the district has lost 10 percent of its students since 2003, taking it from 5,100 to 4,550 students this school year, Superintendent Tim Collins said.
"Hastings has definitely been in declining enrollment for the past decade, and we're projected to have continued declining enrollment," Collins said.
He said this is a demographic issue, one that similar communities are also facing: "It's definitely a reflection of society that people are having fewer children, they're waiting longer to get married."
Those reductions are on top of $600,000 made to the 2013-14 budget — and more than $1 million in cuts will likely be necessary in 2015-16 as well, said Vince O'Brien, board member.
The district has been trying to get by through "reshuffling things" for a few years now. Over time, teachers who retired weren't replaced, and in several cases multiple jobs were combined into one position, Collins said.
The district also has closed two elementary schools, redrawn boundary lines twice, moved the fifth grade to the middle school and changed the entire busing system, all in the past decade. "We always ask, 'Can we do this differently? Should we structure it differently at this time?'" Collins said.
But now, those stopgap solutions aren't enough.
More than $600,000 worth of cuts, the "brunt of the reductions," are proposed at the middle school, O'Brien said. The middle school will shift from seven to six class periods next year to save money, which means there will be fewer electives. Positions in areas like gym, industrial tech and art will be cut, though in some cases just a fraction of a position will go, O'Brien said.
Four special education paraprofessional positions will also be eliminated, two at the elementary school and two at the middle school.
At the high school, about $460,000 in cuts are proposed, which means class sizes will likely go up, O'Brien said. A science teacher position will be axed and portions of other positions will be cut, too.
Elementary-school cuts were recommended by the three school principals, Collins said. They chose to eliminate media staff at the elementary level, cutting three specialists and three media secretarial staff members. Office secretaries will now help out in the library five hours a day.
The district is also adding a new technology position, and that person may help out in the media center as well, Collins said.
Making the media cuts allowed smaller class sizes to be preserved at elementary schools, he said.
Still, "the media center cuts are something that a lot of people are wrestling with," O'Brien said. "Libraries have always been special for me and my kids. … There's a great deal of curriculum and pedagogy that we value and appreciate and that will change as a result of the cuts."
While the proposed budget may be tweaked before it is voted on April 23, it is close to being final, Collins said. After that, tenured teachers who are being laid off will have two weeks to file a grievance if they feel they are being unfairly terminated, he said.
Making the cuts "has been very difficult, but at the same time, our staff overall has held it in the highest level of a professional manner," Collins said.
One budget variable is the number of retirements that the district will experience this year. More people seem to be retiring than expected, and some are "doing it out of the goodness of their hearts to help their colleagues," said O'Brien.
O'Brien said that soon, the district is going to have to look at making bigger, systemic changes, like closing another school. "We need to consider it, because we can't just keep reacting year by year to cuts. We need to be thinking long term."