Moving Unity High School among options to cut Duluth school district budgetUnity High School, the Duluth school district’s alternative high school, could move from Historic Old Central High School to Denfeld or East next year as a way to help balance the school district’s budget.
By: Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune
Unity High School, the Duluth school district’s alternative high school, could move from Historic Old Central High School to Denfeld or East next year as a way to help balance the school district’s budget.
The item appeared on an updated list of cost-cutting recommendations Monday night at a Duluth School Board meeting and would save about $305,000 through staff cuts. It joins other recommended cuts and revenue increases that add up to about $1 million. The district must close a $3.5 million gap for the 2014 fiscal year budget that officially will be approved in June. Tentative cuts will be approved next month.
The district is not yet recommending increases in employee health insurance contributions, raising the eligibility level for insurance or freezing step and lane increases for teacher salaries, but the measures still are on a list of potential cuts that board members are considering. Those three items together would eliminate the deficit, but each needs to be negotiated with the Duluth Federation of Teachers. The union contract expires June 30, and negotiations are just getting started, Superintendent Bill Gronseth said.
An overall pay freeze also will be part of negotiations, but isn’t included on the budget list. The $3.5 million reduction assumes no increase in pay, but if negotiations lead to an increase, then further cuts would have to be made, said Bill Hanson, business services director.
The independent study program would remain at Historic Old Central High School, but several board members took issue with the idea of moving Unity and the Area Learning Center out of the building. The programs probably would move to Denfeld, which has more room than East, Gronseth said.
“A lot of them really struggle with crowded situations,” member and former Denfeld principal Bill Westholm said of the students, who typically attend Unity because they didn’t do well at one of the larger high schools. “If we don’t do that one absolutely right it would cause more problems for some students than would be worth the gains.”
Member Mike Miernicki talked about the choir at Unity’s graduation last June.
“I thought it was phenomenal,” he said. “I don’t think that choir would exist at the high schools. The little opportunities I see here — the yearbook, the candy-grams — I just hope that doesn’t get lost.”
While not yet recommended by administration, elementary specialists were discussed again as a possible cut, which would save $1.6 million. Those positions include media, physical education and music and art teachers. That remains unpopular with board members.
Members Mary Cameron and Judy Seliga-Punyko appeared more willing to consider insurance increases and salary freezes.
“It’s an alternative to layoffs,” Cameron said.
District officials estimate it would save $1.23 million per year if employees paid 20 percent of their single coverage toward health insurance and another $1.5 million if full health-care benefits were offered only to full- and 0.8-time employees rather than 0.5-time as currently required. Another $723,000 could be realized through freezing step and lane increases to teacher salaries. Step increases are given for years of experience, and lane increases are given for higher qualifications.
Member Art Johnston said the steps and lanes freeze would be a tough sell to teachers and advocated refinancing Red Plan payments to pay off debt. But that, Gronseth said, would further increase what taxpayers already are paying toward the plan.
Among the proposed changes to save money include again limiting freshmen to six classes, meaning no zero hour; and eliminating early release days in place of three full days off to save on busing and staff costs. Funding high school career centers through schools’ own funds would save the district $23,000.