St. Francis school board members on Monday will face a task that's becoming all too familiar to Twin Cities school boards: cutting millions of dollars out of their budget.

In the case of St. Francis, a north exurban school district of about 5,500 students, that means laying off dozens of employees, raising activity fees, reducing bus service and eliminating programs for the 2009-2010 school year.

Because of a failed referendum earlier this month, the board must pare $4.5 million from a total budget of slightly more than $50 million a year. Because of declining enrollment, the district must also cut out another $1.1 million to make up for state funds lost from having fewer students.

Making this a perfect storm of budgetary woes is the current state of the economy: District officials are counting on getting no new money next year from a Legislature that will likely be more concerned about pulling the state out of its deficit hole than giving schools a raise.

There are plenty of nearby districts sharing the pain. Even though school boards are just in the early stages of deciding how to budget for the 2009-2010 school year, some have already determined that big reductions are necessary.

Pending board approval, Anoka-Hennepin is planning $10 million in cuts, and will hold public hearings in January at two district high schools to help board members figure out what they need to cut.

Brooklyn Center schools, shot down at the polls in a September referendum effort, will make at least $400,000 to $600,000 in cuts, said district Superintendent Keith Lester.

Robbinsdale schools, despite a referendum victory Nov. 4, still must make cuts that will probably involve closing a school.

Districts across the state are scaling back on their budget plans in anticipation that a cash-strapped Legislature will give them, at best, no funding increases.

"The situation is very, very dire in terms of the state's budget situation," said Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. For those districts that can't persuade their voters to give them more money, "their situation is getting desperate," he said.

The belt-tightening has a familiar ring to St. Francis officials. Last year, the board cut the 2008-2009 budget by $1.2 million after voters shot down a three-part referendum question.

St. Francis now has suffered two consecutive levy defeats after getting the voters to approve more money in 2003. Plus, the district has failed four times to get voters to approve the sale of bonds to build a new elementary school. This year, the board put one question on the ballot, asking voters for $4.5 million a year over seven years. The measure lost 9,027 to 7,373.

A decision to go back to voters again is probably a ways off. But board chairman David Anderson said he wants to try.

"I think that's one of the things we'll talk about Monday night," he said. "My personal intent is I think we have to."

Dozens of jobs to be cut

If the St. Francis board approves the resolution to make the cuts on Monday, St. Francis Middle School will lose 21 of its 78 teachers and other employees, said school Principal Dale Johnson. Ten of those to be laid off will be teachers.

"They're not happy," said Johnson of his staff. "And when you have cuts of that magnitude, you have fewer electives and fewer opportunities for students to get experiences in art, or health, or a variety of things."

The cuts also threaten the school's system of placing students into "cores" taught by the same teachers, Johnson said. Of the four cores that exist for each grade, one especially designed for lower-performing kids who need extra help would have to go.

Elsewhere in the district, St. Francis High School would lose the equivalent of eight-and-a-half teachers and would have to raise activity fees $100 a student. It would also have to cut its supply budget.

The three elementary schools would have to absorb cuts of $1.8 million, which means 15 teachers, as well as some teacher aides and office assistants, would be laid off.

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547