Dist. 728 wrestles with big vs. small ways of cutting

By Jim Boyle 

Elk River Star News


The Elk River Area School Board is wrestling with what to do with its smallest middle/high school in what has become the eighth largest district in the state.

“We have one foot in one sandbox and one foot in another,” Superintendent Mark Bezek said of the internal big-versus-small-district budget mentality. “We’re a big district trying to work by the numbers, statistics and ratios … and then we have the needs of a smaller school.”

That smaller school is the Zimmerman Middle and High School 6-12 program, and it’s about to lose .3 of an administrator position, which will have a dramatic effect. The school expects to lose a full-time assistant principal to Elk River High School and will only have a .7 position to offer to a replacement.

The School Board will decide Monday night whether to make the cut, letting the chips fall where they may to honor the process put in place to trim $2.7 million from its proposed 2013-14 school budget.

They had their last budget discussion this past Monday in a work session where opinions on the matter varied as they discussed whether to keep both feet in one sandbox or one in each.

School Board Director Jolene Jorgensen – who in previous years called for the Elk River Area School District to act like the big district it had become – said it was important to stay the course for process and follow what the enrollment numbers and ratios are telling them.

Zimmerman is currently at a ratio of 364 students to one administrator, which will be brought up to 404 to one administrator with .3 of the administrator position cut. Meanwhile, Elk River High School’s ratio sits at 425-1, and Rogers High School is 463-1.

“It’s not just the .3 that we’re talking about,” School Board Director Shane Steinbrecher said. “You’re losing a complete person, a huge member of the community is being completely taken out.”

Steinbrecher argued that Zimmerman Middle and High School’s administrative team is as strong as it has ever been, and making the cut could send it back to the tailspin it was in back when it went through four administrators in as many years.

Bezek said it has been a few years since the district has had to make cuts, but the last time it did, he admitted Zimmerman took a hit.

“There’s no question Zimmerman takes a hit when we go through cuts,” Bezek said.

Karen Michels, a former Zimmerman City Council member and an involved parent in the schools, said she believes Zimmerman is being punished unintentionally for past decisions. She points to the draw the Salk Science Technology Engineering and Math Magnet has had on its program. School Board members agreed Michels made good points.

They also know the state of the budget, and the District 728 administration expects this year’s cutting to be the first of three rounds of cutting over the course of a three-year period.

“We’re following a process, and now we don’t follow a process; are we setting a precedent?” Jorgensen asked.

Steinbrecher said then the same could hold through during boundary line discussions as the district looks at numbers and looks away from the notion of community schools.

Bezek said a previous board, right or wrong, made a decision to go with community schools, and that creates some challenges.

School Board Vice Chair Holly  Thompson said being a small school has some advantages and it also has some drawbacks.

“Equitable doesn’t always mean equal,” she said. “A lot of people in Zimmerman would like to have more equitability. Every once in a while, they have to be on the winning side.”

Bezek said administrators would have to take another look this week at he matter, look at the options and make a recommendation.

Cutting $2.7 million is expected to impact 40 people or 22 full time equivalents (FTEs).

Teachers were receiving notice of their likely fate yesterday.