Duluth class sizes probably won’t grow next yearFor the first time in years, a Duluth school district budget probably will be approved without increases to class size.
By: Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune
For the first time in years, a Duluth school district budget probably will be approved without increases to class size.
The Duluth School Board is set to approve its 2014 budget Tuesday, which will deal with a $3.5 million deficit in its general fund.
District administration proposes using more than $1 million in new state aid to cover a large chunk of it, with other revenue making up more than half of the rest. But there are nearly $1.6 million in cuts and new expenses, including a $315,000 cut to the Unity High School and Area Learning Center programs, a $560,000 reduction to special education and $200,000 in increased pension costs.
“The biggest goal I had going in was to make reductions without touching the teacher-student ratio, and we were able to do that,” Superintendent Bill Gronseth said. “While we are making difficult decisions, it’s not going to touch class size.”
The school district this year dealt with the highest class sizes in many teachers’ memories, with some middle and high school core subject sections clocking in at nearly 50 students.
Also left untouched is the sophomore seventh period or “zero hour” class period. Freshmen still are unable to take this early morning period for which the district doesn’t provide transportation.
Another area where the administration previously considered looking for savings but is no longer targeting is the teachers’ contract. A 20 percent contribution increase and raising the eligibility level for insurance would have brought in more than $2.7 million. Freezing teachers’ steps and lanes — steps are for experience and lanes are for higher qualifications — would have saved $723,000.
The proposed budget does not, however, include an overall pay increase for teachers. Negotiations with the Duluth Federation of Teachers, whose contract expires June 30, are under way. Additional cuts will have to be made if negotiations result in an increase.
The union’s president, Frank Wanner, said a number of issues are unresolved but he expects an agreement before the deadline. Negotiations are cordial, he said.
“We don’t see a need for teachers to go backwards in terms of compensation with increased class sizes and demands,” he said. “We’ve done a good job, and we don’t think you reward people by giving them less.”
The cuts to the district’s alternative Unity High School and ALC programs mean a reduction of staff as the schools move to blended instruction. Gronseth said teaching would be two days in the classroom at Historic Old Central High School and three days online. The district is looking for ways to help provide computer access to students who don’t have it.
Money was saved, said business services manager Bill Hanson, by realizing a smaller increase in insurance costs than anticipated. They will go up 5.4 percent instead of the anticipated 6.5 percent. The district also found about half a million in revenue in special education service “opportunities.”
Board Chairman Tom Kasper said this year’s budget news was a little easier to take than years past because of the additional money from the state.
“It’s unusual,” he said. “It’s nice to not have to further impact class sizes and keep some of the course offerings we know are important to students and families. But difficult decisions still have to be made.”
Member Ann Wasson said there wasn’t any “low-hanging fruit” this year.
“But every single School Board member was opposed to making (class sizes) a budget line item,” she said.
Gronseth said the administration spent a lot of time going through budget items. One large chunk — $209,000 — came from changing the way substitute teachers were paid. If they were needed for a federally-funded or grant program, then that program will pay for it instead of the general fund. And some of the cuts are $25,000 or $18,000.
“A lot of them are pretty little, but they add up,” he said.
Gronseth doesn’t expect the district will have to lay off many tenured teachers Tuesday because of the high number of retirees this year. More than 50 teachers retired.