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Rochester School Board looks at potential areas to trim ahead of budget deficit, considers referendum

The district is planning on tackling the upcoming budget deficit over a several-year period.

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The Rochester School Board meets Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, in the school district's Edison Administrative Building in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — The Rochester School Board recently looked at several areas to make cuts and heard about the logistics of moving forward with a referendum.

Both measures are meant to curb the effect of a projected budget deficit of more than $20 million the district will be facing in the coming years. The board discussed the issue during a previous meeting , during which they looked at some of the reasons behind the deficit. One of the reasons was the large drop in enrollment associated with the pandemic.

The board didn't make any decisions during the meeting.

Potential budget cuts

RPS Finance Director John Carlson said the district is trying to make as many of the potential cuts as possible without having to get rid of anything that directly affects students.

"That's really what we were targeting: what can we do to make sure we have the least impact to students as possible," Carlson said.

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The district is planning on tackling the deficit over a several-year period. The first year, the reduction will be somewhere between $4.8 million and $7 million. Whatever figure is selected will determine how much has to be cut the following year.

Interim Superintendent Kent Pekel said he recommends moving forward with the higher reductions during the initial year, lowering the amount that would need to be cut the following year.

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Some of the proposed reductions involve eliminating positions that are budgeted but unfilled, including roles in special education, administration and COVID-19 response.

The one reduction students will notice is the elimination of INCubatoredu, which was a business-development program housed in a separate downtown building. Carlson said the reason for eliminating the program is "low demand, difficulty staffing and leased facility cost."

Other areas where the district could reduce costs are:

  • Reduction in contracted services and supply budgets.
  • Reduction in administrative staff based on lower enrollment.
  • Reduction of a central office clerical position.
  • Reduction in instructional coaches.

If the district opts to reduce up to $7 million from the budget the first year, it will include looking at areas that are "deeper and more systematic in nature," according to Carlson's presentation.
They would include eliminating vacant para positions in student support services, the elimination of a curriculum position at the central office, the elimination of clerical positions at the middle school and high school level, and the reduction and reorganization of student services positions at the central office.

It also would include a change in the formula that determines how many paraprofessionals there should be for a given number of students.

During the meeting, there were questions about whether eliminating some positions would be wise.

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"These are the areas in which our staff has grown much faster than other categories," Pekel said. "So, we've added a lot of staff in these categories. That doesn't mean that those additions haven't been needed."

Carlson's presentation also included a "sample list" of reductions that may need to be made ahead of the 2023-24 year. That list contained changes that would be felt by families. They include changing "setpoints for heating and cooling," the elimination of some athletic sports and even the possible closure of a "small elementary school."

Board member Melissa Amundsen clarified that the decision to build the district's latest elementary school, Overland Elementary, happened before the district began facing the forthcoming deficit.

"At the time that we went out for the last building referendum, projections pointed toward us needing all of the buildings," Amundsen said.

Potential referendum

The board also heard about the logistics of putting another referendum before voters. During a previous meeting, Carlson said the district will face the deficit even if voters choose to support the referendum. In other words, the deficit likely will be exasperated if voters don't green-light the increase.

RPS has an operating referendum that was approved in 2015. It is scheduled to sunset after the 2025-26 year. Many school districts in Minnesota have them because state funding formula hasn't kept up with inflation.

However, at $749 per pupil, Rochester's referendum is low compared to those of surrounding communities.

  • Rochester: $749
  • Stewartville: $878
  • Pine Island: $885
  • Dover-Eyota: $932
  • Byron: $1,032

Carlson provided other comparisons as well. Among a group of six similarly-sized districts, Rochester had the lowest referendum. In the Big 9 conference, Rochester had the fourth lowest, sandwiched between Winona's $700 and Mankato's $782.
In addition to the possibility of increasing the operating referendum, the board also heard about another option called a capitol project levy.

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Although they both function to provide more local tax dollars to the school system, they work in different ways. While the referendum would work on per-pupil basis, the levy would be based on a rate. The also differ in how they impact different taxable entities.

With a referendum, the burden would be more on residential property owners. With the levy, the burden would be more on commercial and industrial property owners.

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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