$35K in athletic cuts, longer walks to school, employee parking fee on WAPS' list
by LAURA HAYES
On Thursday, Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board will vote on what programs and services will be on the chopping block to provide for $1.5 million in cuts from the district’s general fund budget. Last week, WAPS administrators identified $1,502,389.14 in budget cuts, and their recommendations include increasing the “walk zone” for students who take the bus from one mile to two, cutting special education staff members, a hiring freeze of educational assistants throughout the district, and charging employees to park in WAPS lots.
WAPS administrators compiled a list of just over 30 items that they recommended to be cut next year. It includes charging employees $90 to park in district lots or stalls; cutting the hours of special education staff such as the autism spectrum coordinator, psych services, special education teachers at Rollingstone and Madison, and a counseling secretary; and cuts to teaching staff. Administrators proposed a $35,000 cut to WAPS’ athletics, though no details were provided about what exactly would be cut. WAPS Interim Superintendent Kelly Halvorsen said that at $35,000, no athletic program would be completely eliminated.
For the past several months, the district has been gathering budget cut proposals from staff, students, administrators, School Board members, and community members. Several of the proposed cuts drew opposition from community members including deep cuts to the district’s athletics and Spanish Language Immersion Program (SLIP) and closing Rollingstone Elementary School next year.
Some of those contentious proposals did not make the administrators' recommended, including closing Rollingstone and Madison next year and eliminating SLIP. School Board member Steve Schild called for the school closures to be up for consideration to provide for the budget cuts, saying that he would rather close a school than have children walk an extra mile. If the schools were closed, some board members had concern about where the students would go. “Where would you put SLIP?” Board Chair Ben Baratto asked.
Halvorsen said that she wasn’t comfortable telling families about potential school closure without a “solid plan for facilities” in place. While the board voted to ask community members for approximately $90 million to expand Goodview and Jefferson and close the rest of the district's elementary schools, WAPS’ facility plan has flip-flopped several times about what schools would actually be closed or remain open.
Districtwide, the School Board is cutting just under seven full-time equivalent positions next year, and a majority of the cuts are coming from the elementary schools at all of the schools except Goodview. Two full-time teachers would be cut from Winona Middle School (WMS) and one from Winona Senior High School (WSHS). In total, the staffing cuts is estimated to save the district $438,796.
The hiring freeze is estimated to save the district just over $95,000. Halvorsen said that it wouldn’t result in any layoffs and the district would have to relocate educational assistants to where they’re needed.
Other proposed cuts would have first through fourth graders have a full day on the first day of school, which would provide for more state funding. According to WAPS Interim Superintendent Kelly Halvorsen, currently the elementary students have an introductory day when parents can see where their child’s lockers and classes are. “I think many of our parents are ready to send their children back to school, and would appreciate a full day,” she said.
While administrators proposed outsourcing custodians at Central, Winona Area Learning Center (ALC), Jefferson, Goodview, and Rollingstone to save $101,000, several board members voiced their concerns that the people would be paid less. “For the age of these buildings, they’ve been very well taken care of,” Baratto said.
Administrators had several ideas to increase revenue in the district — charge employees to park in the parking lots for an estimated annual revenue of $35,230, have mandatory furlough days for people employed year-round, and close the district office the week of July 4. Halvorsen told the board that closing the district would also impact childcare programs including Key Kids, childcare at the ALC, and summer school.
AVID concerns return
Last school year, Baratto spoke publicly about his reservations about implementing the district’s Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program after the district spent almost $35,000 to send 15 WAPS employees to San Diego, reportedly to determine whether the district ought to pursue the program. AVID is a nationwide program that provides support to “mid-level” students with GPAs ranging from 2.0 to 3.5, who come from low-income households or are the first to attend college. In its first year, the program was expected to serve 25 to 50 students.
Last year the cost of the conference rose from initial reports of $25,000 to almost $35,000, plus $15,300 spent on a membership designating staff members as AVID co-directors, which, after being paid, provided small discounts for the conference and professional development opportunities for teachers, curriculum resources, and program enhancements. Last year Director of Finances Sarah Slaby told the board that the money came the staff development fund.
One person suggested eliminating the AVID program next year, which Slaby estimated would save $10,432. “You want to tell me that that money comes from staff development, and I agree to that, but you know what, that money comes from your wallet and mine,” Baratto said.
He pointed out that the program didn’t address low-performing students. He proposed using the money to help students kindergarten through third grade who may be behind in reading and math skills. Some board members balked at Baratto’s proposal, saying that it provided student support services that the district was lacking. “Is the program a benefit?” Vice Chair Tina Lehnertz said.
“Tina, every program here is a benefit,” Baratto said.
There were several proposals to shift funding, including using staff development dollars to pay for one workshop day for licensed district staff — to save approximately $100,525. Staff development funds are currently used to pay for teachers to receive training and write curriculum. Last year, the fund was used to pay for the implementation of the AVID program at the district.
School Board member Karen Coleman asked if additional staff development funds could be used to pay for workshop days. Halvorsen said that while they could, she said that the district carried over about$100,000 every year in staff development funds. “If we went into it a lot more, we’d have to be a lot more selective in what we allowed teachers to use professional development dollars for,” Halvorsen said.
Board member Allison Quam asked if additional spending could come from the technology levy that the community approved in the fall, including staff. Slaby said that administrators promised that property tax referendum money wouldn’t be spent on staff.
The School Board is expected to vote on budget cuts on Thursday, April 6, at its meeting at city hall at 6 p.m. The meeting is open to the public. At the beginning of the meeting, time is set aside for public comment.