Amid a $700,000 deficit, the Le Sueur-Henderson School Board is facing a decision to make deep cuts to the school budget, either through closing Hilltop Elementary School or cutting teaching staff. But on the recommendation of the Finance Committee, the School Board voted unanimously to delay a decision on the proposed cuts until next school year.
The School Board chose to keep Hilltop open through the 2021-2022 school year but will lay groundwork to make a decision in 2022-23. They also voted for staff not to be cut in the upcoming school year.
The recommendation was made to give the community a chance to share their views on closing Hilltop, said Superintendent Marlene Johnson. This year’s upcoming facilities referendum could also affect what happens to the elementary school.
“We’ve been studying it, but our stakeholders really haven’t had a lot of opportunity for feedback or input,” said Johnson. “So they possibly want to take a year and do a little more study on what would be best to do there and possibly tie it into the referendum analysis.”
Small class sizes
Cutting teaching staff was also undesirable to the Finance Committee. The current proposal to cut teachers would result in the reduction of a second-grade, third-grade, fourth-grade and fifth-grade teacher. Combined, these measures would save $204,000 but would raise class sizes by up to 50%. The average second-grade class size would jump from 18 students to 25. Third-grade classes would rise from 20 students to 26. Fourth and fifth-grade classes would see the biggest changes, leaping from 21 students to 30 and 32 students respectively.
On top of staffing cuts, the proposal includes the same $51,000 cut to TOSA curriculum in the first proposal. It would also remove the course for American Sign Language, saving $20,000.
Johnson said that the school district prides itself on smaller class sizes, prompting the Finance Committee to look for another avenue to address the deficit.
Any deficits that aren’t addressed this year will be rolled over into next year’s budget, but a one-time windfall from the federal government is releasing some of the pressure on the district to make large cuts. Le Sueur-Henderson Finance Manager Ky Battern said the district is eligible for $395,000 in ESSER II funding under the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act enacted last December.
“That will give them some breathing room and time to analyze it a little bit more, find possible other avenues or resources, so it doesn’t impact the classroom,” said Johnson.
But the ESSER II funding doesn’t save the district from its debts in the long-term. The relief dollars are one-time funding, but the shrinking class sizes remain a problem for the district’s budget.
Revenues for the district have dried up as the school loses students. Incoming kindergarten classes have too few students to offset the graduating senior classes and the district continues to see a net loss in students enrolling in/out of the district. Since the 2018-19 school year, the district has lost 88 students, a whopping 8.6% of total enrollment.
With fewer students comes fewer state dollars. Roughly 80% of Le Sueur-Henderson’s funding comes from state aid, which contributes $6,567 per student. Losing 88 students amounts to a $578,000 loss for the district.
But Superintendent Johnson suggested that the School District may find new ways to increase student enrollment in the next year with the assistance of incoming Superintendent Jim Wagner and new School Board members.
“There’s new leadership on the board and there’s new leadership coming in,” said Johnson. “There might be new ideas on how to gain more revenues for the district and possibly gain more students in the district, so they want to hold off on that to analyze that as well.
While the School Board voted against closing Hilltop or cutting staff for the upcoming school year, they did approve several smaller budget cuts recommended for 2021-22. This includes:
Cutting the payroll position and reassign duties to the business manager, saving $35,000
Funding repairs out of the long term facilities maintenance budget, saving $34,000 in the general fund
Cutting the utility budget by $40,000
Removing $120,000 in Transportation costs through hiring a new bus service
Reimbursing the tech budget through the E-rate program to save $45,000
Reducing tech repair and maintenance by $4,000
In total, the estimated dollars saved would amount to $278,000. Combined with the ESSER II funding, the district could this year’s deficit by $673,000, leaving roughly $27,000 in debt rolled into next year.