Rural elementary schools targeted
After more than a decade of cost cutting measures, the Merrill Area Public Schools finds itself once again facing the need to cut more than $1.3 million for the 2012-2013 school year. And, the closure of rural elementary schools is once again on the table to balance the budget.
MAPS administration is recommending the closure of both Pine River Elementary and Maple Gove Elementary starting with the next school year. Under that option, the remaining elementary schools would house grades K-4, and all 5th graders would be moved to Prairie River Middle School. Projected student counts would be: Washington, 270; Kate Goodrich, 356; and Jefferson, 278. Closing the two elementary schools would save the district $482,805, which would be partially offset by an estimated $200,000 in additional costs at the middle school for a total savings of $282,805.
Administrators noted that PRMS has the space to accommodate the 5th graders and the middle school staff are receptive to the idea. Money would be saved on the operation and maintenance of the two buildings, along with a slight reduction in staff.
“In order to better serve all students we have to find ways to be more efficient,” MAPS interim administrator Bruce Anderson said. “I have a strong opinion that it isn’t the building that guarantees our students a great education, it’s the quality of the teacher in front of them.”
There are ongoing efforts to create a charter school at Maple Grove in cooperation with the Marathon School District. A charter school grant is close to being approved. However, Anderson is recommending that MAPS stop the process.
“I recommend that for the sake of the district as a whole, the district not accept charter grant funds and respectfully end the process to establish the Maple Grove Charter School,” Anderson said.
The projected savings to MAPS by establishing the charter school with Marathon is estimated at $66,161, based on an enrollment of 100 students at Maple Grove. But, Anderson said, there are still several unanswered questions about the arrangement that could hold additional costs for MAPS.
MAPS district enrollment is expected to continue downward for at least the next six years, with a projected $5.4 million in budget cuts to be made over that time. Anderson said it would be unfair to the district as a whole to make a commitment to the Maple Grove Charter School while cutting elsewhere.
“If we made a 5-year commitment to the charter school and yet have to cut significant money for another six years, we’re saying we’re going to take it out of every building but Maple Grove,” Anderson said.
Under the proposal, MAPS Head Start-Early Childhood program would move to the Pine River Elementary building. The 4K program at Head Start would also relocate to Pine River, however the other community sites for 4K in Merrill would remain where they are now.
“We have no intention of closing the community sites for 4K,” Anderson said. “As a matter of efficiency we believe we can handle 10 more students at the Head Start-Early Childhood site.”
In 2012-13, the 4K program will receive some one-time funds, expected to be about $100,000, for facility improvement. If the Head Start-Early Childhood-4K program relocates from its current location on Sales Street to Pine River School, that money can be used to address significant needs of the Pine River building, Anderson noted. The money could also be spent on upgrades to the current Head Start building, but Anderson said the money would be better spent on the Pine River building.
The biggest cost-savings proposed for next year’s budget is a change to employee health insurance. The district is expecting to save roughly $600,000 by upping the deductible on the Health Reimbursement Account plan from $2,000/$4,000 to $5,000/$10,000. Anderson said the true savings won’t be known until insurance companies bid on the change, but according to consultants the $600,000 figure is conservative.
Other items proposed to be cut include a high school science teaching position, professional development expenses for staff and the boys hockey program.
MAPS has been dealing with a structural deficit since 2002. The district has made annual budget cuts, with nearly $3 million cut last year. The biggest factor driving the deficit is declining enrollment; fewer students means less money from the state. Coupled with that, state-imposed revenue caps limit the amount of money school districts can seek from the local taxpayers to make up the loss of state revenue.
The Board of Education has tentatively set a special meeting for Jan. 5 to consider taking action on the administration’s recommendations.