Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Jack McFarlane
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

Barnum Schools and community discuss alternative cuts


March 12, 2020

With the Barnum school district facing big financial cuts for the upcoming school year, representatives from the Barnum community and from Barnum schools met on March 4 to discuss the future of the schools, come up with alternative cuts to personnel, and try to find a way to ease tensions that have ratcheted up with the school district trying to cut about $750,000 from next year’s budget, with most of the money from the proposed cuts coming from the personnel department.

“We’re all here to pull together and not apart,” said Dawn Newman who helped to moderate some of the evening. Laraine and Paul Mickelson helped facilitate the conversation as the group of representatives gathered in a circle with one person talking at a time. Three representatives each from different groups with a stake in the school—parents, board members, administration, students, community, teachers, and special education—talked into the night about the challenges ahead, and their own ideas on ways to save or generate money for the school’s budget.

Those in attendance, before entering, were asked to write down their overriding concerns and turn them in. Those concerns were then sorted into seven categories. The general areas of community concern were teachers, special education, students, alternative education, school as community, school superintendent, and the school board.

Superintendent Mike McNulty presented a financial overview on some budget items and student count. From the fiscal years of 2014 to 2019, the Barnum student count went from 802 to 705 students, a loss of 97 students. With each student the school gets about $10,000 in funding, so losing students quite literally costs the school money. “It’s a lot of adding up over time,” said McNulty. The student count is projected to continue trending downward over the next several years.

The present fund balance sits at $640,000, and the board’s policy and goal is to have 2-4 months’ worth of expenses in the fund balance, which is the district’s savings account. One month’s worth of expenses of running the school costs about $750,000. The approved non-personnel cuts add up to just under $128,000 in savings. Other non-personnel reductions still being worked on and not yet approved, could push that number to $187,890 in savings, or about a quarter of the $750,000 recommendation. Personnel cuts that had been recommended would be worth about $530,000 in further reductions.

McNulty also touched on another issue, that future reductions will need to be made even if the school district is able to make the $750,000 in cuts. The district has been deficit spending five of the last six years. Some members of the group brought this up in another way and wondered how the district can get on the right track for not just next year but several years and more down the line.

What the district is trying to avoid is going into statutory operating debt (SOD) which would mean the state would come in and make mandated cuts that the district would have to follow or lose state funding. The MN Department of Education says about SOD, “According to Minnesota Statutes, section 123B.81, subdivision 2, SOD exists if the school’s operating debt is more than 2 ½ percent of the most recent fiscal year’s (FY) expenditure amount.” It means losing local control on these budget decisions, but it also places the burden of balancing the budget on the school district.

Passing a bond referendum would be a way to help make up the deficit; the bond is then repaid by raising taxes for people within the school district. The problem with a community like Barnum is that most of the tax paying residents within the school district are not affiliated with the schools, making it difficult to pass a bond referendum.

Each representative member who spoke was frank and open about the challenges facing the school district, as well as the positives the district had to offer. Each individual brought a different perspective to the discussion and viewed the reductions through a different lens. The Mickelsons’ facilitated the discussion as it went around the circle, asking several questions that each member had a chance to answer. The meeting was punctuated by honesty and difficult questions and answers, but each representative group respectfully listened to other groups’ thoughts, ideas, and concerns throughout the discussion.

“I feel that we’re not working, we’re not cooperating and working collaboratively,” said teacher Audra Richardson. “I feel as a teacher that my ideas or what I can help provide isn’t as important as what it should be. And I realize that we have a big deficit, but I also feel that we might not be as open to solutions that could very well work, creative solutions. Working with what we have instead of what we don’t have.”

“I look at one of the challenges is that, there is a division, at some level,” said board member Jessica Unkelhaeuser. “I think there’s maybe some underlying distrust amongst everyone involved.”

“The biggest challenge that I see, one of them, is a real lack of ability to talk to each other,” said parent Paula Williams.

“So from my perspective, I think one of the greatest challenges we’re facing is how to make smart cuts that are going to be equitable so that the needs of our students can be met,” said teacher Kari Johnson. “As a teacher, looking at the number of positions that were proposed to be cut, I have a hard time seeing how we are going to be able to meet the needs of all of our kids.”

“A big challenge is compromising students’ education from the proposed cuts of staff,” student Audrey Liggett said.

Multiple people brought up the fact that sometimes they don’t feel heard or that their ideas are not given the same weight as others. “I’ve seen like, I’m not going to point fingers or anything, but certain ideas are pushed and certain ideas are just dismissed and thrown away,” Liggett said.

Some of the possible reductions and cost savings that were discussed or brought up included; trying to get a referendum passed, going to a four day school week, looking at the superintendent’s salary or going to a part time superintendent, transportation co-op with Moose Lake, increasing activity fees or looking at the activities themselves, finding ways to cut alternative things other than personnel and special education funding, using grants to pay for teacher’s salaries, and how nothing should be (or is) off the table for cuts at this moment in time.

“We should talk about everything. We should try to save money everywhere, so that it’s fair. So that people, when we do cut, people feel like they’re not the only ones.” Williams said.

Ideas to generate some revenue for the school district included things like the student council or other extracurriculars putting on fundraisers to raise money, charging kids for parking, charging for concerts, an auction, marketing Barnum schools as a desirable place with some unique programs or looking more into how to stop losing kids from the district, and just looking creatively with an open mind at the challenges ahead. What lies ahead is a rough road for the school district and the community, but it has become abundantly clear what the different stakeholder groups need to do.

“We need to work together. It cannot be us and them. We have to work together because we will never pass a referendum. We need a referendum; we will never pass a referendum if we can’t come together to the table and negotiate,” Richardson told the circle and the assembled auditorium audience.


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