by NATHANIEL NELSON
The Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board has settled on a reduction number for the 2019-2020 budget: $2.25 million, the largest cut of its kind in recent history. The final numbers will not be approved until the board’s next meeting on March 28, but according to numbers provided by finance director Sarah Slaby, the district will need to trim millions from its expenses to break even, and according to superintendent Rich Dahman, those cuts will begin with staffing.
At the end of the month, the board will take action to approve the reduction goal amount, which amounts to a 5.56-percent reduction of the total budget. According to Slaby, that percentage was given to each department to come up with internal budget-reduction ideas before the board is forced to move to bigger-ticket items. Additionally, the board will hear from department directors and principals, who will provide a preliminary list of potential cuts in their respective departments, followed by a community forum and presentation on April 1 to allow the public to comment and critique the district’s plan.
It won’t be until April 18 that the board takes action approving specific budget reductions, but Dahman explained the district is already examining one potential option –– a large-scale staffing reduction.
“We’ve dug ourselves into a financial hole by not having [a correct staffing ratio] in place,” Dahman said. “It’s important that we get our amount of staffing in step with our enrollment.”
Recently, WAPS has been experiencing dwindling enrollment, with the most recent numbers showing that the district is nearly 200 students under its budgeted projections for this year. With enrollment set to continue decreasing into next year, stymied projections for incoming kindergarteners, and a lack of past staff reductions, Dahman said the district will likely have to make more “extreme” cuts to staffing this cycle.
At the March 7 meeting, Dahman brought forward preliminary data for class sizes, comparing this year’s classes to projections for next year. According to the data, the district is projecting to cut six sections from elementary schools, roughly six full-time equivalent (FTE) staff from the middle school, and roughly eight FTEs from the high school.
Some board members were cautious regarding the data, advocating for a more analytical look at how class size and staffing correlates.
“The one thing that really concerns me as I look at these charts is the absolute number of teachers that would not be here next year,” board member Karl Sonneman said. “To just throw numbers on a piece of paper and say we won’t need these teachers, that’s a concern for me.”
Former board member Jeanne Nelson was unhappy with the data, recounting that there are isolated classes in the high school that have too many –– or too few –– students to be successful, and that smaller average class sizes should be prioritized.
“We need to have more teachers in the high school,” Nelson said. “This is a place where I think we really need to take a look at.”
The current maximum class size at Winona Senior High School is 32, and under the projections, the average students per section during the 2019-2020 school year would be 31.2.
Dahman said while some schools focus on smaller class sizes, others choose to put more resources into intervention programs to help individuals who are struggling instead. “There is a lot of research out there that students’ class size doesn’t have much of an impact of students’ achievement,” Dahman said.
“It’s that high-quality instruction with that support that is necessary,” board chair Nancy Denzer added.
Board member Allison Quam was particularly concerned about the elementary school reductions. “One of the things that people are happy about are the small classroom sizes at the elementary school level,” Quam said. “I would not support setting class sizes yet; I would like to hear from staff about what they see about budget cuts.”
According to the data shared at the meeting, the class sizes for elementary school students would increase slightly, but still sit within the district’s target range for class sizes, with an average size of 23.4 students per section. Dahman said he shared Quam’s desire for small elementary classes, but insisted that they would “stay the same as our target right now” under the plan.
Dahman added that staffing reduction would not be relegated to the classroom, and instead include employees from all different employee groups in the district. Per a request from the board, Dahman said he will bring a more complete list of staffing reductions across all areas for the March 28 board meeting, when the class size projections will return as an action item.
While the budget reduction process will continue into the spring, the WAPS Board in a split 4-3 decision voted to approve the creation of a Finance Committee, which has been a prominent issue for Sonneman since he first called for its creation in January. Board members Steve Schild, Tina Lehnertz, and Nelson voted against the committee, while Denzer, Quam, and Michael Hanratty voted alongside Sonneman to approve the motion.
“I think we truly need a Finance Committee, and I believe that’s the pressing matter,” Sonneman said. “It’s not just budgeting –– it’s the ongoing financial state of the district.”
The committee idea has returned on multiple agendas since the first meeting, as Sonneman has refined and elaborated on the request at the behest of fellow board members. Some members, including Schild and Lehnertz, had previously voiced concern over the reach of the committee and giving financial power over to a committee instead of the full board.
In the purpose document given before the board last Thursday, Sonneman explained that the purpose of the committee would be to assist Dahman and Slaby with financial analyses, reporting to the School Board directly and following board directives for bringing in public input and comments.
“The Finance Committee would not be a decision maker, it would be an advisor,” Sonneman said. “I believe the best approach is to bring in some outside expertise that might be of some value.” He did add that there was a “philosophical difference” among some board members about including community members on the committee, so he left the membership and appointment decisions up to the full board to decide.
While some members, including Nelson and Lehnertz, voiced concern over a supposed lack of clarity or function in the proposal, Quam explained that it can be up to the board to decide how the committee develops from here.
“First you have to start with the formation of the committee, and then give the committee a charge, and give it a direction,” Quam said, with Hanratty adding that there are “blueprints” across the state as to how finance committees can be successful.