The Lakeville school board approved $3.5 million worth of budget cuts Tuesday, including the elimination of four elementary school counselor positions.
But the belt tightening isn’t over. The district has already put $3 million from its fund balance toward next year’s original deficit of $6.5 million — and without a successful levy referendum this fall, board members expect they’ll need to trim another $5 to $7 million from the 2014-15 budget.
“None of the reductions are fun to do,” said Lakeville Superintendent Lisa Snyder. “Our guiding goal was to try to stay away from further impacting class size … and the regular ed classroom.”
About half of the cuts to the 2013-14 budget will be administrative in nature, including eliminating the technology coordinator position, reorganizing special education expenses and reducing transportation costs. Cuts to student-support services, such as counselors, technology staff and paraprofessionals, will make up about a quarter of the cuts.
Among the decisions drawing the most scrutiny was eliminating four of the districts’ eight elementary counselors. It was also one of the hardest cuts to make, said Roz Peterson, school board chairwoman.
It was made in part because the district is hopeful “there will be some earmarked money at the state level for mental health,” and that the additional funding might allow it to retain counselors, Peterson said.
Unfortunately, the cuts come just as the district’s security recommendations indicate the schools should pay additional attention to students’ mental health needs, Peterson noted. Those recommendations were also read at Tuesday’s meeting.
Kathy Mattern, a counselor at Oak Hills Elementary who has been with the district for 20 years, said she’s concerned because the need for counselors’ services isn’t decreasing.
“It’s really alarming to know that we’ll have four counselors probably serving 1,100 to 1,200 students each,” Mattern said. “Even though class sizes aren’t going up, student support services will be stretched thinner, and that will have an effect on teachers and students.”
When they approved the budget, the board also made the last-minute decision to keep one of the district’s two activities directors, whose elimination was proposed.
“We have the highest activity fees of any school in the area and parents and athletes demand services for that,” said board member Jim Skelly, who moved to approve the budget while retaining the activities director.
Another reduction that Snyder said will be challenging was a cut in the hours of elementary support staff, including clerks, tutors and classroom assistants. Cuts will be spread out across schools, but the measure will eliminate the equivalent of about one position per school.
In recent months, several other budget reduction proposals were struck down due to public input, including an idea to restructure the dean system at the secondary level.
“Throughout the study sessions, we’ve done a consensus check — so kind of a thumbs up or thumbs sideways of what you can live with — versus a thumbs down, item by item. So that helped us get to a point where we knew these cuts will be supported,” Snyder said.
The board has done a good job trying to consider the public’s opinion on the cuts, said Don Sinner, president of the Lakeville teachers’ union.
“They have tried their best to get input from stakeholders across the community,” Sinner said. “The board has had to choose between bad and worse.”
This latest cuts come after the district was forced to slice more than $15 million from its two-year budget in 2011, with about $3 million of that amount coming from its fund balance. Those cuts included an elementary school closing, a reduction in elementary-level art and music offerings, increased activity fees and staff layoffs, he said.
The current predicament is the result of several forces, including stagnant state funding, Sinner said.
Sinner said that the district also has received no new money via operating referendums since 2003, though three levies have been proposed and failed since then.
Lakeville’s declining enrollment has added to its financial problems, Snyder said. This year’s senior class numbers about 900, while the average kindergarten class has about 600, she said. Fewer students means less state aid.
“If that trend continues with lower birthrates in Dakota County, we’ll definitely feel the effects of that,” she said.
Snyder said she’s hoping the changes are temporary and that the district will have a successful levy campaign in the fall. All board members say they will support a levy, she said.
Randy Anderson, the district’s business services director, said that districts across the state and metro area are also struggling with budget cuts.
“It’s the new norm of school districts in Minnesota,” he said. “When the funding hasn’t been keeping up, what are you going to do?”