It may be an off-year election, but there’s going to be a lot at stake for Stillwater schools when voters head to the polls this November.
An operating levy that provides $11 million to Stillwater area schools each year expires in 2014.
That — coupled with $22 million in cuts over the past 12 years and an expected $4-6 million shortfall as a result of flat state funding and rising costs — means the school district stands to lose nearly 20 percent of its annual revenue.
When that happens, budget cuts hit the classroom — and that was the greatest concern expressed by about 100 parents who attended two Town Hall meetings this week at the district's junior high schools.
In three words one resident summed up what many attending the meetings were thinking: “This list stinks.”
“In the past we’ve tried very, very hard to keep cuts away from students, but with an $11 million levy expiring there just isn’t enough to cut in other areas,” Community Engagement Coordinator Carissa Keister told the School Board on Thursday night.
Class sizes, student programming and learning interventions were clearly the biggest concerns for those attending the town hall meetings.
Residents questioned what losing music programs, all-day kindergarten and elective courses would mean for the district —and expressed concern that cuts to learning interventions would create bigger gaps between successful learners and those who are struggling.
Other talkers were the possibility of a four-day school week, general safety if school resource officers or security contracts are cut, transportation and ability to retain quality staff members in the midst of budget cuts.
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“As residents learned more about the new strategic plan, there was a lot of excitement about it, but concern that we may not be able to actually implement our plan fully if we don’t have the resources,” Keister said.
Residents told school officials they should continue to increase efficiencies across the district and evaluate employee compensation and benefits.
Community members also suggested the district increase its grant writing, utilize volunteers to help in the classroom, sell ad space on school resources and reduce the number of extra-curricular offerings at the high school.
Residents also encouraged the district to look at enrollment numbers, and depending on what is found, consider restructuring or closing a school.
Discussions about charging a fee for all-day kindergarten were prevalent, as were concerns about how the district communicates information to the public.
The school district has a lot of work to do, Superintendent Corey Lunn said. It will be important to get information out to voters, so people know the issues and understand what is at stake for Stillwater schools.
A scientific survey will be sent out to about 500 district residents in the coming weeks to give the School Board an idea of what the community may be willing to support before drafting the questions for a levy request.
The School Board will meet for an all-day workshop on March 2 (open to the public) and will approve a list of potential cuts if the levy isn’t renewed during their March 7 meeting.
A levy decision will be made by the Board on April 11.
“Last time we did this, we did not have the list of reductions. We didn’t have an idea if we were going to ask for more money, and what we were trying to do. We were trying to do this in July—and we came within one percent," Lunn said. "By the way, only 40 percent of our parents voted.
“Now, we’ve got this," he continued. You know what there is to lose, and how your money was invested. We’re going to tell you how we’re going to grow, and we’re starting in April, so we have time to our community’s parents about what we value in our schools.”