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Rochester school budget options looking ugly

The Rochester School Board now has a third option to consider in closing a $5 million budget gap, and it's not pretty.

The cuts, if adopted for the 2011-2012 school year, would eliminate programs that would impact thousands of students in Rochester public schools.

The proposed reductions include: eliminating all media specialists at the elementary school level; removing the three police liaison officers from the schools; eliminating nearly a dozen boys and girls sports at the high school level or raising fees by $100; closing two district swimming pools; cutting funding for Quarry Hill and the planetarium; and cutting funding for the district's gifted and talented services by 50 percent.

Interim superintendent Jackie Silver made clear in an interview that she does not support the proposed reductions. But the list of cutbacks — officially dubbed the "third alternative" — were put together by her in response to a directive by board members who wanted a budget option that did not require dipping into district's rainy day fund. Board chairman Dan O'Neil was one member who had asked for a third option.

"You can't come up with $1.5 million in cuts and not affect students and programming," Silver said.


The items that found their way into this latest option were originally proposals recommended by a community budget-cutting committee that met during the fall.

News of the proposed cuts quickly spread among district staff and community members Friday. The board will take up the proposal at its meeting on Tuesday.

The board is also weighing two other options for reducing the budget. One uses a combination of efficiencies and one-time federal dollars to close the gap. It would not result in layoffs of any of the district's 2,000 employees, but it would require a $2 million drawdown of the district's rainy day fund.

Another route would be to use the district's $1.4 million in funding for staff development and training to close the gap. But that option, barring an act from the Legislature, would require approval from the Rochester Education Association in a union vote from teachers.

Board member Terry Throndson is one who has argued for stiffer cuts in anticipation of the lean times ahead. The Legislature is currently grappling with a $6.2 billion budget deficit, and Throndson said recently the district needs to strengthen its fiscal position by taking its "cod liver oil" now with deeper cuts.

But in an interview, Throndson said he was opposed to the "third alternative" cuts proposed by Silver and district staff.

"I think (district administration) needs Business 101," Throndson  said. "The kids are our income. When you start cutting programs like this, parents are going to take their kids elsewhere."

Throndson said he would aim cuts at district administrative staff and cabinet level positions. "We are so top heavy," Throndson said.


He also said he supports "across the board" reductions of 5 percent that would be spread evenly across the district as the "simplest and least painful" approach. But that option, he said, has so far gained little traction.

If the board, for instance, were to decide to adopt the reductions, student fees would go up $100 per sport and $25 per activity to cover a $300,000 cutback. Without the fee increase, the district would no longer be able to financially support six activities, five boys sports and six girls sports.

An estimated 3,000 students at the high school level participate in sports throughout the year, said Mark Kuisle, Century High School's athletic director. Kuisle declined to say what sports and activities would be eliminated under such a  scenario, but said the cutback would be harmful for students looking for a "comprehensive high school experience" that involves both athletics and academics.

"This type of reduction would really eliminate opportunities for kids or put the fee for sports in a category that is going to be cost-prohibitive for the vast majority of our kids," Kuisle said.

Board member Julie Workman said Silver did "exactly what we asked her to do" in finding an additional $1.4 million in cuts that did not involve staff development funds or contract negotiations with employee groups. Workman said she did not support the list of cuts.

"It really hits students hard. I think we would be in a lot of difficulty," Workman said. "The plus factor is that it does show the public that we're getting down into really affecting kids."

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