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Rochester Public Schools looks at cutting teaching positions to meet $14 million deficit

While students enrollment has increased 7% over the last decade, the staff has grown nearly 27%.

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Rochester Public Schools Finance Director John Carlson speaks during a study session of the school board on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023.
Jordan Shearer / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — For the second year, Rochester Public Schools is bracing for the process of having to make some steep budget cuts, this time amounting to as much as $14 million.

Half that deficit will be made up with a reduction in teaching staff — nearly 77 full-time equivalent positions amounting to a savings of $7.7 million if recommendations to the board are approved.

The Rochester School Board discussed the budget and the upcoming cuts during a study session Tuesday. The board will revisit the issue Feb. 7, when it will vote on a set of guidelines that will determine what those cost reductions will be.

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Superintendent Kent Pekel outlined the process in a memo to the board, detailing both the reductions that need to be made as well as background information that led to the situation. Half the deficit, he said in the memo, comes from increased expenditures due to higher compensation in the last round of union contracts.

The size of the proposed cuts for 2023-24 has grown from $7 million to $14 million since the district initially introduced the multi-year budget reduction plan.

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“Broadly stated, the budget strategy outlined in this memo continues implementation of the strategy that the RPS school board approved a year ago,” Pekel said in the memo. “However, the amount of the reductions that must be made to achieve a balanced budget is higher due to the contract settlements that our district reached with many of the unions that represent our employees during the last round of negotiations.”

The guidelines presented to the school board include budget reductions or fee increases in 14 categories, ranging from administrative and clerical positions to reductions in transportation costs and contracted services.

The largest single category to be impacted will be the teaching staff. If the board goes on to approve the recommended cuts, the teaching staff would be reduced by 5.2%, representing 76.8 full-time equivalent positions representing a saving of $7.7 million.

The proposed reductions also would have a large impact on the number of educational support professionals, formerly known as paraprofessionals. If the reductions are approved, there would be a 8% reduction in those positions, representing 42.6 full-time equivalent positions with a financial impact of saving $2.01 million.

RPS Director of Finance John Carlson clarified that some of the positions to get cut may be those that are built into the budget but aren't actually staffed at the moment.

The district has a total budget of $388 million. Of that total, $256 million is in its general fund.

In addition to outlining the recommended reductions themselves, Tuesday’s study session included context about the reasons that lead to the need for the reductions in the first place. One reason for the proposed cuts, according to Pekel’s memo, is that state and federal education funding have not grown in proportion to inflation.

On a similar note, the memo also explained that state and federal funding for special education have not “covered the cost of the services that are required by law.” As a result, RPS has to “reallocate approximately $15 million from the general fund to cover shortfalls in funding for special education each year.”

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Although funding has not increased in proportion to the cost, Pekel also explained that the district has proportionally added more staff than students over the last decade. That creates a financial imbalance since the main factor in state funding is school enrollment. While the enrollment of students has increased 7% over that time, the staff has grown nearly 27%.

One particular area where that has happened is special education.

“We are overstaffed in special education in key areas relative to best practice in the field,” Pekel explained at Tuesday’s meeting. “We need to treat it with real compassion and emphasize a do-no-harm approach, but we also cannot get to budget stability if we don’t take a look at our staffing in special education.”

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Kent Pekel, Ed.D. (Contributed photo)

While the school board's current process is focused on reducing costs, Pekel also reiterated that RPS is getting ready to overhaul its financial strategy.

At previous meetings, he's explained part of that will include finding additional revenue streams through grant funding. The district has already seen a glimpse of what that could look like when it received a $1.2 million grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to support the district's work around the concept of "deeper learning."

However, Pekel explained the overhaul process will also focus on making sure the existing revenue streams are focused on driving the goals outlined in the district's strategic plan.

"It's critical I think that we all keep in mind that we are on the cusp next year of designing a budget and a funding system that reflects our values and priorities through investments," Pekel said. "We are on a path to fundamentally rethinking how we utilize our resources."


What happened: The Rochester School Board reviewed proposed reductions to the school district's budget.

Why does this matter: The proposed changes will affect dozens of teaching and support jobs, with the potential of increasing class sizes in some cases.

What's next: The School Board will vote on the proposed reductions on Feb. 7.


Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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