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Mitchell school staff cuts to be minor, despite state funding reduction

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third story in a series examining the impact to the Mitchell School District budget resulting from a 6.6 percent reduction in state funding for K-12 education.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third story in a series examining the impact to the Mitchell School District budget resulting from a 6.6 percent reduction in state funding for K-12 education.

In the wake of state cuts to funding for K-12 education, talk of teacher layoffs is rampant.

In Yankton, 22 teachers will reportedly be laid off next year as the district battles to overcome the funding shortfall.

In Mitchell, school officials are optimistic they'll be able to negotiate next year's budget without major staff reductions. The district anticipates a $792,000 reduction in state funding.

Instead of wholesale amputations of programs and personnel, Mitchell school leaders hope to get the job done by making smaller cuts to numerous programs and departments, dipping into reserves and using more of the district's available $700,000 opt-out of the state property tax freeze.

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Mitchell school officials plan to cut 2.5 full-time teaching positions and four support-staff jobs, for a savings of $105,730.

They also hope to save an additional $70,000 through attrition -- though those details have not been specified -- and Superintendent Joe Graves told the Mitchell Board of Education he hopes to reduce overall employee compensation by $217,164 next year.

Graves hasn't specified how those compensation savings will be achieved, but he did confirm he will seek financial concessions from the local teachers' union, the Mitchell Education Association.

"We'll be able to become more specific once negotiations begin moving forward," Graves said. "It's one thing when we say we're going to have a compensation cut, but in order to say where that cut will occur, we'll need to confer with the union on that."

Failure to do so would constitute bad-faith bargaining, he said, explaining that both sides must come to the negotiating table with their own ideas and thoughts.

MEA President Darrel Anderson and chief negotiator Curtis Smith both had little to say about the upcoming talks, but both acknowledged the difficult fiscal climate. The talks are expected to begin next week.

"We're just going to wait and see what the two sides bring together and go from there," Anderson said. "We know it's a tough year for everybody and we're just going to see where (talks) lead us."

The MEA is coming off back-to-back three-year contracts which gave its 100-teacher membership-- and about 100 non-MEA member certified personnel who also benefit from the negotiations -- 3 percent raises each year.

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The fact that the board recently approved a no-raise contract with the Mitchell Area Technical Educators may give some indication of the negotiating climate teachers can expect this year. Though the MATE contract gives no raises, it maintains benefits.

"I've said I need 'compensation reductions,' " Graves said. "Having said that, it's unlikely there will be 3 percent increases, but we also don't want to be in a situation where our pay scale is out of synch with the prevailing competition."

If the district fails to remain competitive, it could risk losing some of its best professionals, he said.

But it's also reasonable to assume that, with many districts bailing as fast as they can to keep their respective budgets afloat for 2011-2012, few will be flashing exorbitant employment contracts about for the coming fiscal year.

His goal in making his suggested cuts, Graves said, is to avoid wholesale program cuts to academic or extracurricular programs.

He acknowledged the importance of extracurricular programs as a necessary part of the formula for student success.

"We know that if a student is deeply committed to one extracurricular activity, they will graduate -- because they're connected," he said.

Mitchell's principals believe the district will be able to handle the cuts by consolidating tasks and working just a little bit harder.

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At the high school, an upbeat Principal Yvonne Palli said the high school is adding two math classes as well as an auto repair class for girls. No additional teachers will be hired to make the changes.

Middle School Principal Brad Berens said the main impacts to his school will be the loss of a half-time counselor, reduced funding for student travel and a tighter supply budget. The Middle School had about 580 students this year and Berens expects roughly the same number of students next year.

Mitchell has historically always been a financially conservative school district, Berens said.

"Through the years, operating costs have continued to rise, but our operating budgets have remained the same," he said. "We're just going to have to keep tightening." He feels fortunate that he has been able to fill his school's job openings this year.

Like other administrators, Berens is hoping for the best.

"The big danger signal," he said, "will be when we have to start cutting actual programs and staff to the point where our class sizes start to increase to 30 or 35 students. Then I think we'll really be starting to roll backward."

Graves expects not to have larger class sizes.

"I'm doing everything I can to not raise class sizes," Graves said, but it's not something he will guarantee at this time.

The uncertainty of the pre-negotiations atmosphere has created some anxiety among teaching staff at Mitchell High School, said Deb Everson, English Department chairwoman.

Teachers are steeling themselves for a pay freeze, but they are also considering the possibility of pay cuts.

"I wouldn't say that it's alarming to teachers so much as it is the anxiousness and confusion of the whole thing," she said. "We wish we knew more about what's going on."

The unsettled atmosphere has teachers worried about possible increases in class size. English classes average 25 to 26 students at the high school, Everson said, which means that some classes have 30 to 31 students.

"And that's an incredible size for high school English," she said. Class scheduling must also be finalized, she said.

"I don't want to say morale is low, but I wouldn't say it's high," Everson said. "Everyone's just holding their breath and waiting to see how bad it could be."

Mark Halling, chairman of Dakota Wesleyan University's Education Department, said money isn't the chief motivator for students seeking teaching jobs, but it is a concern. The DWU department has about 100 students, 15 of whom completed their student teaching requirements and graduated this semester. Another four will teach this fall and get their diplomas in December.

Getting that first job has been his students' major concern, he said, and not budget cuts or low salaries.

About six students have signed teaching contracts and others remain hopeful. Halling has counseled his students to persevere in their job searches.

"I tell them don't give up, don't be discouraged, because there are not as many job openings out there and there are a lot more people applying for them," he said.

"Since most of our students are from South Dakota, they're thinking of staying in South Dakota," Halling said. Only one student has taken an out-of-state position, in Nebraska.

Students are generally upbeat about finding jobs, he said, but they are also dogged by the specter of having to pay back student loans.

Grads who haven't been able to find regular teaching jobs are, as a backup plan, signing up with area school districts as substitute teachers. Halling said they are hoping to make some money, to get more teaching experience and to get a foot in the door in the event a teaching slot opens up.

"Recent graduates are thrilled to have a teaching job," he said. "When students went into education, they weren't deluded into thinking they were going to get rich. They went into it because they wanted to work with kids."

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