By Amanda Dyslin
---- — LE SUEUR — The Le Sueur-Henderson Public School District is trying to balance improvements to student opportunities with inevitable cuts that will have to be made before the 2014-15 budget is set by June 30.
Declining enrollment is at the root of the problem, said Supt. Rich Hanson.
When Hanson came to the district three years ago, enrollment was 1,070 students. This year it's 1,020, and with roughly $7,000 allotted for each student in state funding, that's an overall reduction of about $350,000.
“Our enrollment is continuing to decline. The classes that are graduating are larger than the classes that are coming in, and that's really impacting us," he said.
Hanson doesn't have an estimate of how much will be cut from the budget next year, and he doesn't have specifics on what programs or how many employees will be cut because administration and the School Board are still investigating the impact on students before making decisions.
Hanson does know that staff will be reduced. The district is not just looking at teaching staff, he said, although the specific areas being looked at haven't been determined.
“We have tried to protect our staffing and be prudent,” Hanson said. “(But) 80 percent of our budget is staffing. When we have to make some of these more significant cuts, that's where we have to look.”
Marsha Sullivan — a parent of three children in preschool, second and fourth grade — said the lack of concrete public details about potential cuts makes it difficult to offer feedback.
"It's been hard to know what the concerns might be. Some people who are teachers, or who know teachers, are talking about the different proposed cuts and things happening," she said.
Several teachers spoke at a recent School Board meeting, voicing concerns about cuts to teaching staff and the impact on programs, overall student learning and increased class sizes.
Sullivan said rumors indicate the gifted and talented program was discussed among teachers and administrators as being on the chopping block, and she heard another change being looked at is starting school later at 8:40 a.m., she said.
However, without listing specifics, Hanson emphasized the district is looking at a number of possibilities, as well as the impact those changes would have, and nothing has been decided.
One of the more controversial elements in the budget discussion with parents is the administration's proposal of a free preschool program. Currently, the district's preschool is tuition-based, although breaks are offered for families that can't afford to pay.
About $50,000 in additional revenue would be needed to offer a free program, Hanson said.
The reasoning is two-fold, he said. For one, offering free preschool could attract more families to enroll their children in the district, rather than choosing other preschools in the area. If students begin in the district's preschool, the theory is they would be more likely to stay enrolled in the Le Sueur-Henderson school district for K-12, thereby increasing enrollment over time and bringing more per-pupil funding into the district.
“There's concern of, 'Should we be looking at a program like this at the same time as (making) reductions?'” he said. “But the other part of it is if we don't introduce it, we're still going to have our enrollment concerns.”
The larger reason, however, has to do with ensuring students have access to preschool so that they are ready for kindergarten.
“Our real purpose is to provide opportunities for all children,” Hanson said.
The district preschool program is now offered at Hilltop Elementary in Henderson and Park Elementary in Le Sueur. Due to a spike in fourth- and fifth-grade class sizes, the preschool will have to be moved out of Hilltop next year, which otherwise only houses those two grades.
There is plenty of room for all preschool sections at Park, but the district is looking at several options for locations in Henderson to keep the preschool in the community. Part of the concern is transportation costs for busing from Henderson to Le Sueur and another is having to put preschool-age kids on a bus at all.
Dozens of parents attended a recent School Board meeting and work session to learn details of the free preschool proposal and location possibilities. District officials have looked at the Knitting Knest, Henderson Public Library, St. Joseph Parish and Saint Paul’s United Church of Christ. But none has the required fully automatic fire sprinkler systems.
The decisions on the preschool changes will be made either at Monday's board meeting or April 7.
Sullivan said parents have been frustrated with a lack of evidence for a free preschool program, including how many children aren't attending preschool because they can't afford it, and how many additional students the program is expected to attract, among other things.
"They're making this large decision without a lot of background knowledge," Sullivan said. "I'd rather see those funds go to supporting programs in our schools instead of being cut."
Hanson said despite the budget constraints, it's important that the district carefully examine the impact of all changes and keep making improvements when possible. As an example, he said: The curriculum coordinator position over a period of years had been whittled down, eventually to just one or two hours per day. That led to the district not staying current with curriculum, which ended up having an impact on learning.
“We didn't realize the consequences of that until a few years later, so we're very cognizant of that,” Hanson said, adding that the position has now been restored to half time. “Even though you need to look at reductions, you still need to be looking at improvements as well. You have to be doing both. If you just cut, cut, cut, that's not going to work.”
Now the district is working on initiating a new English Language Arts curriculum, and next will come new math curriculum.
Hanson said during the next couple of months, decisions on cuts will be made to allow staff as much notice as possible if they need to seek employment elsewhere. The trickiest part: The district doesn't know what enrollment will look like next year until the kids show up in the fall.
“Everything we're doing now is a projection.”
Any cuts made will surely be felt in the district, he said.
“We run pretty lean, so this is not where you can just make easy fixes to (the budget),” Hanson said.