The Duluth school district is asking its employees to take two days of voluntary, unpaid leave to help solve its budget crisis.

In a Friday email to staff, superintendent Bill Gronseth wrote that $2 million needs to be cut from its $100 million-plus budget in the next few weeks; $1.3 million in reductions through postponing projects and purchases and other restructuring has already been identified. That number was reached after number crunching found that $645,000 could be covered by unpaid leave. Without the unpaid time off, layoffs at most levels would be considered, he wrote.

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"As an alternative to layoffs, one recommendation that has come up in every meeting is each employee in the district taking two designated days of voluntary, unpaid leave of absence," Gronseth said. "In other words, spreading the reduction across all staff."

Employees have been asked to respond to a survey on Monday that will gauge support. A decision by each employee on whether they would accept unpaid leave must be made by Tuesday, and then a plan developed that the School Board will be asked to vote on Thursday.

Gronseth said the request went to all employees, and he would be among those taking two unpaid days.

If every district employee took two days of leave without pay, a decision that does not require union approval, the budget would be balanced. Most, if not all, layoffs would be avoided, Gronseth told the News Tribune on Friday night. The number of layoffs is dependent on how many employees consent to the leave. Work already has been done with principals, union leaders and other administrators to figure out possible layoffs.

The district must make mid-year cuts because of unexpected special education expenses, and enrollment that was lower than projected. An audit of last year's finances presented earlier this week showed the district was nearly $500,000 in debt with its unrestricted funds, and making immediate cuts would help reverse a path leading into statutory operating debt. That happens when a district has a deficit that amounts to 2.5 percent of its annual expenses, and prompts the state to require a plan to improve district finances.

A change in the state funding formula for special education combined with increased spending by Duluth Edison Charter Schools as it relates to special education is behind a large chunk of the debt, Gronseth said earlier this week. The district pays most of the expenses of its students enrolled in charter schools and other districts, as required by the state, and Edison - with its high enrollment of Duluth district students - typically spends the most.

The cuts must be made in anticipation of a special education bill from Duluth Edison that wasn't already included in the current budget. Gronseth has said they are expecting it to be similar in size to the one that helped lead to the current deficit. Edison is not required to disclose its spending in advance, and has said it meets state and federal requirements related to those expenses.

Gronseth said Friday night that he has already heard from some employees who are in support of unpaid leave.

"I really believe it's an opportunity for us to care for each other," he said, and for everyone to "give a little to save positions at every level. ... We're trying to be creative."