Cloquet school board makes cuts to avoid $1 million deficit
Tie vote after student letter saves one teacher from cuts
May 1, 2020
With the Cloquet School District looking at a possible $1 million deficit (out of a $30 million operating budget) during the 2020-21 school year, the pressure to approve a number of planned cuts was high during Monday’s school board meeting.
The board approved close to $700,000 in cuts at the meeting.
Superintendent Michael Cary said the district tends to leave about $300,000 in deficit spending on the table almost every year, which usually disappears due to increases in student numbers through open enrollment along with a practice of estimating expenses on the high side.
Cary explained why the deficit for next year is higher than recent years. An estimated increase in insurance costs adds up to about $250,000; a reduction in funding for compensatory education (based on students who qualify for free and reduced lunch) was cut by about $200,000. Delayed staffing cuts added up to $150,000. Negotiated pay increases and steps for staff plus rehiring staff whose positions had been cut added another $450,000. The school resource officer will be back at the high school next year, but paid for from the high school budget, rather than by the entire district.
As recommended by district administration and after extensive discussion during the work session, Board members approved cutting high school social studies teacher Allison Ley and special education teacher Yvonne Steenbbaker Davis at the Cloquet Area Alternative Education Program. Another 2.6 full-time positions won’t be rehired after people resign or retire. The only remaining district librarian position won’t be replaced when Jill Elwood retires after this year. Additionally, 11 paraprofessional positions were cut, four part-time cleaners and one crossing guard (by the middle school). Not purchasing smart boards next year will save $60,000 as the district ponders whether there are other cheaper technologies that might benefit some classrooms.
Still, the budget pressure wasn’t strong enough to stop half the board from voting to keep a high school math teacher, after the superintendent read a letter from CHS junior Jack Slater asking them to find a way to keep probationary teacher Kelsey Motzko.
“Having Motzko as a teacher has taught me better study habits as well as crazy amounts of math,” Slater wrote in a letter that was read aloud during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Cary pointed out that the decisions by administration regarding who to cut when it comes to teachers is 100 percent seniority-based.
“It’s not necessarily a performance issue,” he said. “Lots of times in these situations, we lose people we love, that we think are fantastic at what they do. But that’s the system we have in place,” he said, referring to the longtime union-approved system of seniority or last-one-hired, first-one-fired.
Ted Lammi, Hawk Huard and Dave Battaglia voted not to renew Motzko’s contract, while Duane Buytaert, Jim Crowley and Nate Sandman voted “nay” to the motion. The tie vote meant she will keep her job in the 2020-21 school year.
Sandman said he got feedback on Motzko from peers and colleagues as well as students.
“Everything’s pointing in the right direction of a person that you want on your team, a person that will provide a lot of value in the future,” he said.
Buytaert said he loved the letter, noting that the sentiments expressed by the junior were echoed by other students, both regarding her talents as a teacher and connecting with students.
The math teacher vote wasn’t Buytaert’s only “nay” vote. His was the only vote against cutting the two other teachers; he also voted against approving sixth period stipends next year for four teachers that would each teach an additional class.
During the work session, board members had questioned whether it was wise to approve that contract without knowing whether in-person classes would resume in the fall for Minnesota schools, because they can’t predict whether or not COVID-19 will still be a major threat by then.
Both Buytaert and Sandman voted against giving one-time stipends of $5,000 each to two teachers that “went above and beyond” to help fellow teachers transition to online learning after the governor’s order, in a vote that passed 4-2.
A vote to hire a full-time special education case manager at the high school level passed 5-1, with Buytaert dissenting. The longtime school board member said he felt like the district invests a lot of money in kids that fall in the lower half of the academic spectrum, and keeps cutting programs for higher achievers, like orchestra, a full-time gifted and talented program coordinator and now the only remaining librarian.
“Someone needs to be a voice for those kids too,” he said. “We might lose some [academically gifted] kids after distance learning, as we cut the number of teachers and teachers that are well liked. It’s hard to swallow those cuts.”
Crowley suggested the district consider cutting administrators rather than teachers.
Board chair Ted Lammi said school districts wouldn’t face such huge hikes in insurance if there was nationalized healthcare.
Last year the district rehired almost every paraprofessional whose contract hadn’t been renewed, when student needs grew. All of those positions were cut again for next year on Monday, but things can change.
“With all of this we’re just doing our best job estimating,” Cary said, pointing out that they will have better numbers in June. “What really happens versus what does happen, usually we’re pretty close. Last year we were off by $1,000. That’s pretty great with a $30 million operating budget.”
Before COVID hit, he said the district was on the same trajectory. “We felt like we made a pretty good estimate (for this school year), but now we’ll have to see,” he said. “It could swing into the negative for us or, if they come up with new aid and new revenue streams, it could come up positive.”
Cary said the federal CARES Act also includes money for schools, but no one knows how much money each district will get yet, as it will be dispersed by the state once the federal funds are available.