Faced with projected shortfalls of about $1.4 million for each of the next four years, the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan school board is gearing up for big changes.

Last week, the board voted to form a community group that will study ways to redesign local schools. The committee will make recommendations to the board this fall that could be acted on as soon as next year, said Superintendent Jay Haugen.

"We can't just continue to cut $1.4 million from our budget every year and just kind of leave everything the same," Haugen said. "At some point, we have to completely change the way we do business. I think part of this is preparing our community for that."

The group will include 25 community members in addition to teachers, principals, administrators and the entire board.

The committee could revisit some ideas the board considered, but ultimately tabled, during budget discussions this spring, said board chairwoman Robin Rainford. Those include a controversial proposal to move students and teachers at Mendota Elementary to Friendly Hills Middle School, ultimately merging the two schools, as well as a plan to switch from seven to six daily class periods at Henry Sibley High School.

But the conversation will go far beyond those ideas, school leaders said. In addition to a broad discussion of how the district uses its buildings, the group will discuss topics such as how schools might reorganize classrooms or use technology to help teachers serve more students.

The board has set aside $50,000 in a redesign fund, at least some of which will probably be used to hire a facilitator. The group is likely to seek public input through a survey or focus groups, Haugen said.

The committee is being formed as schools across Minnesota struggle with the state budget crisis. To be prudent, board members in West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan believe that they must plan for flat or declining state and federal funding over the next five years.

Based on the reality of budget cuts, Haugen said, "We're going to have the same or more students, but fewer staff."

Some pilot projects that could lead to broader changes are already afoot, he said.

Moreland Elementary, for example, is trying a bold experiment to restructure traditional classrooms this fall after Principal Peter Otterson was told he'd have to trim his staff in grades three and four.

Otterson could have divided those students among four classroom teachers instead of the five he has now. But with at least 120 kids in those grades, he was looking at class sizes of more than 30.

"We can't keep teaching like we've been teaching," Otterson said. At the West St. Paul school, where many kids come from poor families and don't speak English at home, "it doesn't work."

Instead, students in third and fourth grade will share just three classroom teachers this fall. That's 40 kids per classroom teacher, Otterson said, but those adults will get help from half a dozen other school employees -- including specialists in English as a second language and special education -- who will form a team to work with the students in small groups throughout the day. With the money that could have paid for a fourth regular teacher, Otterson is hiring a gifted education specialist who will help the teachers tailor their lessons to kids with a wide range of abilities.

The idea is that "it's not one teacher being responsible for 30 to 40 children," the principal said. "It's a team of nine being responsible for 120."

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016