School officials are scrambling for budget cuts in one of the wealthiest districts in Minnesota, and are looking at increasing class sizes next year.

The Wayzata school district, which serves more than 13,000 students from the city and seven other Lake Minnetonka-area suburbs, has spent the last two years cutting its budget to rebuild reserves after COVID-19. Forty-two full-time equivalent jobs were cut last year, and there could be more job cuts in the 2024-25 school year.

Last month, district administrators proposed ending the block schedule that has let Wayzata students take 16 courses per school year — four courses per quarter with longer class periods each day. Outcry from parents and the school board stopped that proposal in its tracks, though it would have meant a $1.2 million savings by cutting staff. Now, Wayzata schools are looking for other ways to save.

"We just want to be able to have a plan, to make sure we can sustain the district," school finance director DeeDee Kahring said.

The pandemic threw off Wayzata's enrollment projections, Kahring said. A sudden drop in enrollment meant a loss of $5.5 million in per-pupil funding, plus a host of COVID expenses such as hand sanitizer, masks and air purifiers that federal COVID aid didn't quite cover. Wayzata spent down its fund balance to cover the difference.

Since the pandemic, the district has been cutting to build the reserve fund back to 7% of operating expenses — it stands at about 6.8% now. Kahring said a 7% balance would keep the schools running normally for about a month in case of some new crisis.

To hit a target of $1.5 million in cuts, district leaders proposed shifting away from the block schedule that has been in place since 1996, or at least modifying the schedule so students take fewer classes through their high school careers. The moves would have let Wayzata cut teachers, which the district hoped could trim $1.2 million from the budget.

But students and parents pushed back hard, with an online petition netting more than 2,600 signatures. School board members said they got frantic emails, calls and text messages from students and families after the change was proposed.

No chopping the block

In a meeting last month, all seven members of the board said they opposed ending or modifying the block schedule.

"I lived the four-by-four [block schedule] as a student. I know what it can offer," said school board member Heidi Kader.

Wayzata students can take more electives than students in most other districts, where students typically can take 12 courses per year. The block schedule has also allowed students to progress more quickly to advanced math classes such as calculus, which selective colleges favor.

Board member Milind Sohoni said he thought the block schedule helped more students get into those higher-level classes even if they had not been on an advanced-math track in middle school.

The block schedule is a draw for families and students to enroll in Wayzata schools, said board member Sheila Prior — and growing student enrollment is a goal for the district, Kahring said.

Superintendent Chace Anderson said it will be a challenge to both maintain the high school schedule and cut expenses to increase reserves to the point where the board is satisfied.

He said increasing class sizes at all levels will help. But he warned that schedule changes might still become necessary.

"We have to be able to maintain that excellence that our community expects, that they want," he said, "and we can't go broke."