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Union deal will decide WAPS six-figure cuts (11/03/2013)
By Sarah Squires
Administrators pencil plans to send W-K, Madison fourth graders to middle school

Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) is about to break out the budget-cutting scissors to trim six figures from its 2014-15 budget. The amount to be cut, however, is unknown: estimates range from $300,000 to $700,000.

Much of the uncertainty surrounding the figure is because district leaders can only guess how much WAPS' biggest expense will cost. All five district unions' contracts expired in June, and if negotiations go as they have in the past, the largest chunk of the district's budget payroll won't be finalized until well after budgets are made, cuts are determined, and levies are set.

Union negotiations have rarely gone smoothly for WAPS: approximately half of the contract settlements over the last 15 years have required closed mediation sessions that dragged on, in some cases, for over a year.

District leaders have explained the uncomfortable position they are in when trying to determine annual budgets during controversial and heated union stand-offs: if they make public estimated budget increases over anticipated contract raises, the district might not be able to settle union deals for anything less.

"That's always the wild card," said WAPS Finance Officer Dan Pyan of the union contract deals and budgeting. "It's not easy; there's no other way around it."

What to cut: will

fourth graders head

to middle school?

Superintendent Scott Hannon said he expected to use the same process for identifying budget cuts that was used last year, when the district reduced the budget by $525,000. An administrative team led by Hannon began work in last November, and Hannon said he first approached union leaders to see where they thought the cuts should be made. When asked whether he would change the plan this time around, because the district was in the process of negotiating new union contracts, Hannon said he would not. "To me it won't make any difference," he said of collaborating with union leaders on budget cuts during negotiations. "I'm always interested in what those folks have to say. It's kind of interesting," he said of recommendations from various departments and union groups: "everybody kind of looks at somebody else's area, but that's OK."

A visit to Pyan's office in September showed a plan on his white-board that would send W-K and Madison fourth graders to the middle school, redistrict W-K students to Madison Elementary, and use W-K for "open enrollment," with savings in staff members and classroom space penciled into the plan. When asked, Pyan said he was not pontificating on potential district changes for the upcoming round of budget cuts. When asked whether there had been much discussion about sending district fourth graders to the middle school, Pyan said, "It depends on what space needs are there." He added that ideas such as an expanded preschool program and the work of the district facilities committee could change the need for space in certain district buildings.

Union talks

Hannon said he did not feel that the district was lagging behind its peers in union negotiations, adding that some districts have settled contracts, but he did not believe any in the Big 9 Conference had reached agreements.

Minneapolis Public Schools has met with its teachers union at least a dozen times; the WAPS negotiating committee has only met with its teachers union once, in September. At that meeting, committee members and union representatives went over several minor language changes in the contract that had been discussed by staff members and union officials prior to that first formal committee meeting.

Hannon admitted that the contracts would not likely be settled before the process to identify budget cuts was complete, which will make it difficult to identify how much needs to be cut. The district's situation, he said, is similar to many faced by those assigned complex budgeting processes the work requires careful thought. "If you don't err a little bit on the side of caution with these things, you can get caught," he said.

State changes ease reduction predictions

While WAPS officials don't know how much they will need to trim from the budget, recent state legislation boosted state public school funding for the coming school years and may have helped WAPS avoid a need for more dramatic cuts for the upcoming budget.

The basic state per-pupil funding formula was increased, and for WAPS, it will mean an added $240,000 in fiscal year 2015. Special education funding will increase by $80,000; all-day kindergarten will be fully funded in fiscal year 2015, which will supplement WAPS kindergarten spending by $350,000. WAPS currently offers all-day kindergarten, but the state reimburses only 62 percent of the cost. 


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