The Farmington school board has delayed a vote on next year's budget after a group of parents showed up to a Monday night meeting, objecting to projected class sizes and the cost of paying district administrators.
"We really do feel that our administration is top-heavy," said Tera Lee, one of a half-dozen people who spoke at a meeting that drew more than 20 residents. "We just want some of that money going toward teachers."
Lee, who has four young sons, said one could end up in a class of 28 this fall if the district's current projections don't change. She has called for the board to reduce the cost of paying top brass at the district office by eliminating a position or cutting salaries.
The controversy has surprised many district officials, who are not proposing major budget cuts for next year. Every spring, projections typically show a few especially crowded classrooms, but the district watches enrollment over the summer and hires or moves teachers to balance classes, said Superintendent Brad Meeks.
"The process that we've been following has been the same for, really, the last seven years," he said. "How this has taken on a life of its own, I'm not sure, but it certainly has."
The district has escaped the kinds of painful budget cuts approved this year in many Minnesota districts. Farmington plans to fill a gap of $119,000 in a $55 million budget -- a pittance compared to the millions cut by districts such as Lakeville and Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan.
State law requires school boards to adopt annual budgets by July 1. It's unclear whether Farmington's move to delay a vote to within days of that deadline will affect the budget members ultimately approve.
On Monday, district officials struggled to explain the budget to residents and correct what they said was misinformation circulating in the community.
Approving the budget will not prevent the board from hiring teachers later in the year, Meeks said. "I think there's a belief by the parents that when the budget is passed by the board, that locks in our staff, and that's not true."
Administrator salaries are not set when the board votes on the budget, either, but in separately negotiated contracts.
Lee said she has found that Farmington spends a bigger chunk of its budget than many on district administrators.
But Farmington finance director Jeff Priess took issue with her numbers. "Are you talking general fund? Are you including the capital and transportation funds? ... I could give you 15 answers, and they'd all be right."
A more reliable comparison is on the state Education Department's website, Priess said. Those figures show that 4.5 percent of Farmington's general fund expenditures went toward district-level administration last school year, compared to 3.6 percent in Lakeville, 3.5 percent in Burnsville and 2.8 percent in Prior Lake-Savage.
But because districts may report expenses in different ways, Priess said, even those comparisons are not perfect.
The district has hired a consultant to study how to offer services more efficiently; the report isn't expected until August or September.
"I think we want to be careful about making emotional reductions," Meeks said of parents' push to change the district's administrative structure. Based on student test scores and other indicators, "It seems to be a model that works."
This year, the district had the equivalent of 123.5 full-time elementary classroom teachers, with an average of 23.7 students per class, he said. Next year, it expects to employ five fewer teachers, with an average of 25.5 students per class.
Even so, administrators are monitoring outliers such as North Trail Elementary's second grade, which is currently shaping up to have classes of about 31 students.
Because student enrollment shifts through the early fall, decisions to hire or move teachers often aren't made in the spring, he said. "If we offer a teacher a contract now, we're locked in. We're committed to that teacher for the next year, whether or not those kids show up."
District policy calls for administrators to consider adding a teacher or resources when a class exceeds 25 students in grades K-2, 28 students in grades 3-4 and 30 in fifth grade. But, Priess said, "Those are targets."
Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016