The local Adult Basic Education program is facing a difficult year.
The program, which assists adults with their education needs, like acquiring a GED and learning English, is facing a steep 25% drop in state funding, around $60,000, for the 2019-20 fiscal year. Adding yet another hurdle to the program’s operations is the lack of an Adult Basic Education (ABE) coordinator going into the school year.
The Adult Basic Education Consortium is hosted by the Le Sueur-Henderson school district, and includes 10 other area school districts: Tri-City United, St. Peter, Cleveland, Waseca, Waterville-Elysian-Morristown, GFW, Sibley East, New Richmond-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva, Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton and Nicollet.
Le Sueur-Henderson Community Education Director Nathan Warden stated that the reason for the major drop in funding was due to a drop in contact hours, the amount of hours where students were in the classroom and in contact from teachers.
“Because the unemployment rate is low statewide, we are not getting as many students,” said Warden. “Adult Basic Education receives state funding from seat time. The more students in our classroom and the more hours students are in contact with our teachers, the more funding we get.”
Recruiting new students for the program has been difficult in the past, even without the low unemployment rate according to Warden.
“I like to call this the best kept secret in town,” said Warden. “We need to do a better job of reaching out. People don’t know that we have ESL (English as a Second Language) classes for free. We can help you get your GED and citizenship. There are better ways to advertise, and outreach should be our No. 1 priority.”
The budget cuts have brought with them cuts to teacher hours, equipment and changes to classroom minimums. Warden insisted that these cuts would not impair the education of students.
“Students shouldn’t see any difference from the last couple of years to this year,” said Warden.
He also said that firing teachers was “off the table.”
Budget cuts have also affected the position of the adult basic education coordinator. Previously, the coordinator position was full-time and the coordinator would act as a leader of the consortium, providing direction and managing the marketing of the program. With the downsized budget, the person who occupies the position would act as both program coordinator and a teacher.
“This was done to offer a full-time competitive salary and benefit package while also realizing the needed budget savings in order to achieve a break even budget,” said Le Sueur-Henderson Business Manager Ky Battern. “The ABE coordinator and community education director would then create the class schedule with the ABE coordinator teaching a number of class hours as per the job description.”
According to Battern, this change was recommended by the previous ABE coordinator, Becki Hawkins, who retired June 30.
Since then, the consortium has struggled to fill the position. Mary Jo Kukacka was hired July 23, but later resigned from her role on Aug. 6. Nathan Warden is currently handling the responsibilities of coordinator in addition to his own as community education director, but the consortium is looking for someone to replace Kukacka.
Budget concerns have also led the Le Sueur-Henderson School District to reconsider its role as fiscal host of the ABE consortium. As fiscal host, LS-H is in charge of coordinating class schedules, supplies and program expenses. Earlier in the year, the district raised the possibility of abandoning that role.
“We have yet to sit down and really discuss it,” said Warden. “I think there’s a benefit for LS-H to be the host district. We have yet to sit down though. We’re really in a state of transition right now.”
He added. “I think Le Sueur-Henderson should remain the host district. I think it would be tough for another member to take it on. They don’t have the financial clout to make these big decisions and don’t want to act all alone. If we continue to have less students, it becomes a bigger financial burden.”
In the event that LS-H decided to not be the fiscal host of the program and no other member district of the consortium was willing to take it on, Warden said they would look at becoming the sub-consortium of a larger consortium, like Mankato. In that scenario, much of the important decisions would be made by the larger consortium.
Warden stressed that talks were not at that point yet.
Currently, the consortium is looking into ways to improve community outreach.
“A few of us community education directors met recently to discuss ABE,” said Tri-City United Community Education Director Layne Wilbright. “We want to make sure that all the consortium school districts have information ABE placed on their websites since we’re all in this together. There’s also potential to partnering with large businesses to educate some of their employees who may not have a diploma, GED or need ESL services. Once LS-H hires the new ABE coordinator, we’re envisioning meeting a few times throughout the year as a consortium to brainstorm program ideas, marketing, budget review and look at other ways to increase participation.”