After hearing concerns from the public during a special meeting Thursday night, the Merrill Area Public Schools Board of Education passed a tentative 2012-2013 budget that keeps the Maple Grove Charter School efforts alive.
Parents, students and community members made impassioned pleas to save both Maple Grove and Pine River elementary schools, along with the high school boys hockey program, which was also slated to be cut.
Pine River students spoke of the atmosphere at their school.
"Everyone is so close and cares about each other," said Molly Rydeski.
"Pine River is like a home to me," added Betsy Schmidt.
Maple Grove supporters spoke of the efforts to create a charter school and the grant that has been approved. Creating the charter school could bring students - and therefore more state funding - into the district, while closing it would drive families to open enroll elsewhere, some said.
"Thirty-one students have been identified as likely to open enroll," said Renee Krueger. "That's $270,000 lost annually." Krueger added that 12 students have expressed interest in enrolling into the district to attend the charter school. "This allows for an innovative and progressive environment for the whole district to benefit from," she said.
Coming into the special meeting, district administration was recommending an elementary school reorganization plan that included closing Maple Grove and Pine River schools, and moving all fifth graders to the middle school. The board voted to continue the process of creating a charter school at Maple Grove in cooperation with the Marathon School District. Grant funds to get the charter school rolling are expected to be received shortly. The board also voted to keep all fifth graders in the elementary schools. Pine River Elementary School would still close under the tentative budget, and the building would be repurposed to house the district's Head Start-Early Childhood-4K program.
The board also voted to retain the boys hockey program, which was to be discontinued under the administration's recommendations. Hockey proponents argued that the $35,000 cost of the program as cited by administration is much higher than what it actually costs. They said ending hockey at the high school level would have a devastating impact on the youth hockey program in Merrill.
"There are 19 kids playing varsity hockey," said Blue Line Club member Warren Simon. "If that program is cut, youth hockey will die."
"Cutting hockey will affect many more people than you may think," said MHS hockey player Ried Kleinschmidt. "The goal of a youth hockey player is to play for the high school team. If it's cut, what are they playing for?"
To offset expenses put back into the budget, the board opted to not give district employees a raise for 2012-2013. The administration's recommended budget included a 1.3 % raise; freezing salaries at the current level freed up $236,000.
The district has to cut nearly $1.5 million for the 2012-2013 school year.
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. Other items to be cut include a high school science teaching position and professional development expenses for staff.
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.