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Ideas to fix school budget? Farmington wants to hear them

  • Article by: HERÓN MÁRQUEZ ESTRADA
  • Star Tribune
  • November 23, 2012 - 6:51 PM

One person wants the Farmington School District to sell its teacher lesson plans over the Internet.

Another wants to change how the janitors clean and the equipment they use.

A third wants to do away with the School Dude, a software program used by custodians to track work orders.

Those are just some of the nearly 300 suggestions that have come from residents, parents, consultants, teachers, school board members, administrators and students about how Farmington can save almost $5 million during the next five years.

"The goal here is long-term systemic change," said Jim Skelly, the school district spokesman. "It's trying to create a different approach to the same old problems."

In the past couple of years, the district has eliminated positions, allowed class sizes to increase or scaled back purchases in order to make ends meet, school officials said.

This year the district is taking the unusual step of asking the community for suggestions to adjust the budget and to reinvent the district for fiscal and educational reasons.

"No idea is too crazy, too outlandish," said school Superintendent Jay Haugen, who for the past month has traveled the district collecting ideas, suggestions and comments not only about the budget gap but also about the very makeup of the district.

"This is really about the things you have for us," Haugen told the few people who gathered last week to hear his talk, which he has presented to every school and every employee in the district. "We want you to help us think differently."

Ideas, good and bad

Some of the ideas have been pretty basic: lower the heat to 68 degrees in the buildings or get more ads for the programs sold at school events.

Others have been more bold: go to a four-day school week or eliminate the district copy center.

Haugen and Carl Colmark, the district's finance director, think the latter idea has merit, noting that the district spends about $500,000 a year on staff, copier rentals and supplies.

They point out that, in a highly digital age and world, the district is still making 22 million copies a year.

"Does that make any sense? No," Colmark said.

He also points out that while almost the entire country is using e-mail to communicate, the school still spends about $60,000 a year on postage to send letters, notices, bulletins, report cards and other materials to parents.

"We've got to find some different ways to solve our budget problems," Colmark said.

A way to clean up?

Business consultant Thomas Chase thinks he might have one way to save $250,000 a year or more for the district: change how it uses its janitors and give them better, more high-tech equipment to clean floors.

Chase, who used to own a commercial cleaning business, was one of the few non-district people who showed up last week for Haugen's presentation after reading about plans for the public meeting.

He researched how the district deploys its dozens of janitors and estimated that by going from traditional zone cleaning by one janitor to a more modern team-and-specialist approach, the district could get more cleaning done with fewer workers, saving $250,000 to $400,000 a year.

Haugen seemed impressed with Chase's idea and even accepted a flash drive with some numbers and proposals.

"I thought the meeting was good," Chase said, although he was surprised that fewer than five members of the public showed up and that there were not more parents. "I was really surprised, really surprised, that there was not more interest."

Haugen said that although it would have been nice to have more people attend, the meeting at least gave the community a chance to participate in the decisions.

He said that in coming weeks he would be making visits to senior centers, business associations, community groups and others to seek input on what schools should do.

Eventually the information will be collected and presented to the school board for consideration when final budget decisions are made in late winter.

"You always want to have more people attend, but even three or four people can have some great ideas," he said of the meeting. "But this isn't the only way. We will end up talking to a lot of people.

Heron Marquez • 952-746-3281

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