At its regular January action meeting Monday evening, the Merrill Area Public Schools Board of Education approved issuing preliminary layoff notices to 34 teachers. The layoff notices are the first step in a process the board has approved to trim $1.3 million from the district’s budget for the 2011-12 school year and position itself to possibly make up to $3.6 million in cuts, depending on what the state legislature does to school funding in the next biannual budget.
The board has approved a four tier approach to identifying what cuts would be made to the district budget, with the last two tiers being triggered in a “worst case scenario” of the legislature enacting sharp cuts in K-12 funding. The total layoffs reflect all the cuts that the district would have to make if all four proposed tiers of cuts are needed to be made. This includes teachers in the two rural elementary schools if they are closed and teachers in the middle and high school business, tech ed, music and family and consumer education departments which may be cut if state aid is drastically slashed.
Bruce Anderson, Co-Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources, Administrative Services, said four of the positions receiving the notices are funded by federal stimulus grants which runs out at the end of this school year.
“It is possible that the federal government could restore those funds,” Anderson said.
“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Board President Jeff Verdoorn replied.
The board deviated from the published agenda in order to vote to accept the retirement of seven employees, six teachers and one administrator, before moving to the layoffs. According to the contracts with the various unions in the district, employees have until Feb. 1 to file retirement papers. Anderson said that if any more teachers apply for early retirement by the deadline, some names may be spared layoffs.
“It is a fairly extensive listing that honors the contract,” Anderson said. “They reflect all the cuts.”
The layoff notices will be given to all affected teachers by next week. These teachers then have five working days from receipt of the notice to file a request for a private conference with the school board to discuss the layoff.
The board will be asked to consider a list of teachers who will be receiving final layoff notice in late February or early March, and these final notices would be given to the teachers by March 15. The district then has until the last day of classes to recall those teachers who will not be laid off.
Verdoorn said that the unique nature of the contracts MAPS has with its unions means the district is the first in the area to have to issue layoff notices.
Board member Loretta Baughan objected to sending so many layoff notices since the board had not decided on what cuts it was going to make. Verdoorn said that in order to comply with the union contracts, the notices must be issued now to give the board as much flexibility to make budget cuts as possible.
“If we don’t do something like this, we have no options,” he said.
The board voted 8-1 in favor of issuing the layoff notices, with Baughan casting the lone nay vote.
The board also discussed a proposed advisory referendum to be held during the April general election. At the Town Hall meeting January 6, several residents suggested such a vote to give the board a better feel for what budget cuts voters would support.
In a draft of the question that would be presented to the voters, MAPS Superintendent Dr. Lisa Snyder recommended giving three possible choices, with voters picking the one they supported the most.
Option 1: The district should close Maple Grove and Pine River Elementary Schools.
Option 2: The district should eliminate specific elective curriculums at the high school level (examples of elective curriculums to eliminate include Family and Consumer Education, Business Education, Technical Education, Art and Music).
Option 3: The district should seek additional funds through a separate referendum.
Snyder said in researching the legalities of the advisory referendum, she has found that they are rare in Wisconsin.
“We would definitely be trailblazers in these troubling times,” Snyder said.
Board member Brad Kanitz said that the financial ramifications of the first two options should be included in the questions. Snyder said that as it is worded now, the referendum would be “pushing the limit” on length. The questions came from the comments given at the town hall meeting, she added.
Discussion then turned to ways to include more information in the wording. Snyder and Verdoorn said that the board and administration would use every available avenue to get this information to the voters, including the news media and possibly another town hall meeting. In the end, the decision would rest with the nine board members, however.
“It does not take the onus off the board to understand what the ramifications of these actions are,” Snyder said.
Several board members expressed fears that, as worded, the referendum would pit supporters of the elementary schools against those in favor of keeping the high school programs intact.
Chuck Bolder even suggested that the board cut to the chase and ask the voters for authority to exceed the revenue cap to get more money for the district.
“Based on some of the information that came out at the town hall meeting, maybe we should go ahead and have a referendum,” Bolder said. “That’s not very confusing; it’s either yes or no.”
Baughan said she thought the entire idea of an advisory referendum was a bad idea and that she didn’t support it. She said the board got all the information it needed from the people who attended the town hall meeting and who have contacted them.
Vice President Keith Schmelling said that while the board has heard from those stakeholders with a vested interest in the process because they have children in district schools, the referendum would be a way to get even more information from taxpayers.
“The referendum would get impartial input from people not affected,” he said.
Snyder said the administration would work on refining the proposed wording, seeking input from board members. It would then be ready for the board to consider at the February 7 meeting. The question would have to be formally submitted to the county by February 16 to make the April ballot.
When Verdoorn took a straw vote of the board to gauge the interest of the members to proceed with the referendum, six said they supported the concept while Baughan, Kanitz and Jen Seliger saying they did not.