As the Merrill Area Public Schools Board of Education considered a preliminary budget for the 2014-15 school year Monday night, a handful of community members made pleas for the band and choir programs at the high school and middle school.
With an open position in the band program and the impending retirement of long-time choral instructor Jim Bjorklund, the board has decided to combine those positions into one. The new teacher will be assigned half-time to the instrumental music program and half-time to the vocal music program.
MHS junior Noah Duginski said the proposed change would reduce the quality of the music education students receive.
“It disappoints me that my final year of music education at Merrill High School will be of lesser quality than my first three,” he said.
Jackie Kuck said she moved to Merrill 50 years ago and the excellent school system was one of the reasons she and her husband chose Merrill. She asked the board to do anything possible to keep both programs intact.
“If you cut back on the arts programs, you’re taking away from all of these students the best part of their high school years,” she said.
Superintendent Wally Leipart pointed out that, in the last eight years, the high school enrollment has experienced a 21% decrease, or 250 students. Participation in music courses has declined by approximately 25% during the same period, he said. A half-time reduction in staff is a 20% decrease in staffing in the music department.
“Based on student enrollment, course requests, and retirements, we can make a partial reduction in choir and band while maintaining the same expectations of the program,” Leipart said. “Students will still have access to courses, as no courses have been eliminated. Students will continue to receive individual lessons in band and choir.”
Technology purchases in recent years allow for students to record practices and have critiques on performances. This has made lesson time more efficient and meaningful, Leipart said. The Marching Jays and the spring musical will continue, he added. One noticeable change to next year’s band program will be that all band students will march in the parade circuit.
“I think we can do this with no interruptions or loss of programs to students,” said MHS principal Shannon Murray.
The two changes students will notice are a new face to replace Bjorklund and “minor” changes to the way instrumental music lessons are conducted, Murray said.
The district currently has 2.5 band teachers assigned to the middle school; that will be reduced to 2.0. Over the past several years, the middle school has seen a reduction in teaching staff of four full-time equivalent positions in core classes. The school also no longer offers German or Home Economics. Music was one of the last areas considered for reduction, Leipart said.
The preliminary budget also calls for not replacing a retiring art teacher at the high school. Student requests for art classes for next year has declined by 82 requests.
“The art staff reduction is a direct result of declining enrollment and student course requests decreasing to a level that allows us to restructure the department and take advantage of a retirement,” Leipart said. “As with band and choir, students will be able to access courses as no courses will be eliminated.”
In preparing next year’s budget, Leipart asked each administrator and supervisor to develop budget proposals that called for up to a 5% reduction in expenditures. The parameters for budget reductions included seeking efficiencies in purchases, practices, and program delivery; and, reductions in staff focused on attrition when and wherever possible, he said.
“While stafffing levels may change for 2014-15, it is our intent to continue to provide high quality, relevant learning experiences for kids,” Leipart said.
The preliminary budget passed by the board of education Monday night includes a net reduction in teaching staff of 3.6 FTE’s and a reduction in support staff of 2.0 FTE’s. The board voted to add back a middle school science position that was originally presented for elimination at a previous board meeting. Eliminating that position would have increased class sizes too much, Finance Director Brian Dasher noted. 
The budget also assumes a 5.7% increase in dental insurance premiums and a 5% increase in health insurance premiums.  
The total tax levy is projected to decrease by .27%.
With greater than anticipated enrollment in Bridges Virtual Academy for next year, the 2014-15 preliminary budget shows a $112,031 positive balance. Changes to the BVA were initially expected to have a substantial negative impact on enrollment, but the district is now projecting only a 14% reduction in enrollment. 
Dasher cautioned the board that the $112,031 is a relatively small cushion and a lot can happen between now and October, when the final budget is approved.
“This is not a surplus available to fund other things,” he said. “That can change rather quickly.”