BREAKING NEWS: Planned 622 cuts spark impassioned pleas

Anyone who wanted to get into the Jan. 31 School District 622 public hearing on proposed budget cuts had to navigate through a Scylla and Charybdis set up by elementary band boosters.
On one side, parents handed out flyers detailing why the fifth-grade band program is vital to children's learning and to the success of the middle- and high-school music programs. On the other, a dozen youngsters played flutes, trumpets, trombones and a saxophone in sometimes-wavery, sometimes-confident tunes.
Inside the North High School auditorium, the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School Board seemed caught between clashing elements as people approached the podium to offer testimony: impassioned pleas for the Reading Recovery program on one side, impassioned pleas for extracurricular activities on the other.
Parents of elementary-schoolers took the podium to advocate cutting high-school staffing, followed by high-school teachers who pointed out that the enrollment deficits were at the elementary level, not in the high schools. One person would threaten dire consequences if administrative staffing were cut; the next threatened people wouldn't vote for the next levy referendum if busing fees were brought back.

The Reading Recovery question
A proposed budget cut of $377,000 by dropping the Reading Recovery program drew the most speakers, many of them teachers who offered dramatic testimony about children who'd been helped by the intensive one-on-one program and warned that programs that demanded less staff time (and cost) would probably result in later costs for remedial work and special education.
Reading Recovery takes referrals of first-graders who test lowest in reading ability in their grade level. These students, some of whom appear in first grade unable to recognize a single letter or word, are paired with a teacher for intensive daily learning periods, and have curriculum materials that are sent home to involve parents in the student's learning. After a course of several months, program backers say, many students test at least at average level in their age group.  
Linda McDonough-Rees, a parent and staffer in the district, said she's seen studies that show Reading Recovery has an 80 percent success rate, and offered her 11-year-old son's experience as an example. "When I started in Reading Recovery, I could not read at all," Colin told the board. "When I finished, I was a great reader. . . I have been on the honor roll at John Glenn all year. I hope that other kids have the opportunity to have Reading Recovery, too."
Webster Elementary Reading Recovery teacher Angela Newhouse, noting that district figures say only 112 students are helped by the program each year, said, "Yes, it is a small number of students who receive our services, but any classroom teacher can tell you it only takes a small number of students to upset the delicate balance in a classroom and demand a disproportionate amount of time." She added that because it's offered so early in a child's schooling, Reading Recovery "is an intervention, not a remediation" and helps kids before they fail in the school system.

Hitting a sour note
The loss of fifth-grade band was the second-least-popular idea, judging by audience testimony at the hearing. A fifth-grade band instructor, middle-school and high school band directors and mixed ensemble of parents testified that the course was essential to the continuing of District 622's band program as it's now known, as well as being valuable to students. "Band, like no other subject in elementary school, helps children develop positive self-esteem, teamwork and the ability to pursue their own learning," fifth-grade band director Ruth Meyer said.
The fifth-grade program, they explained, allows for more teaching time with small groups, as students learn their instruments. It's a steep learning curve that first year, they said, and by delaying the process, students' eventual skill level in high-school band will be greatly compromised. And that, Tartan band director Tony Didier suggested, could lead to the student disengagement and flight to other districts the board says it wants to avoid.
 Nor can the district just save on that intense instruction time by pushing the program a year later, Maplewood Middle School band director Corinna Smelzer said. The arrival of a bunch of sixth-graders in her band room with no knowledge whatsoever of their instruments would be a disaster, she said. "Picture 60 students in a room with a foreign language instructor who's charged with teaching 11 different foreign languages to them simultaneously," she said. "No other teacher would be asked to perform a task like that."

In the crossfire
By far, the largest single amount expected to be saved is the $2.3 million by cutting 40 to 50 teaching, paraprofessional or education assistant positions in the district. Other proposed staffing cuts also drew fire.
Dave Lyon, a parent from Oakdale, said he applauded the board's determination to make it into the black in a year, but said he thought that the teaching staff could be reduced "very easily where you have large numbers of students — like in high schools and middle schools."
Karen Vidlok, a North High teacher, said "I see a number of (cuts) that are affecting the high school when there is not declining enrollment at the high school." She asked, "What sort of investments are you looking at for our district? What are you thinking of offering so students aren't looking around at other districts?"
Craig Lindsay, an Oakdale parent, said, "When you're talking about (cutting teaching positions) you're talking about class sizes." He said he knows of class sizes of 32-34 students in elementary grades in the district, which are already "about 10 more students than there should be" in those classes, in his opinion. Further staffing reductions would further reduce the benefits younger students get from smaller class sizes, he said. Lindsay added that if the "resource" or study hall period were eliminated at middle schools, that might save staff costs and lead to better learning.
Another District 622 teacher, reacting to the proposed cut of the district's only central media staff position, said she didn't know how teachers would get help and support using computers and other media resources in that case. She said she'd been told when she first started teaching at her middle school that there were portable laptops available to classrooms, but after several years, it was discovered the laptops had gone missing at some point. She predicted such mismanagement would increase without one person accountable for all district equipment.

Busing fees back again?
The idea of once again introducing fees to bus elementary students who live within a mile of school and middle and high school students who live within two miles of school obviously struck a bad chord with a couple parents at the hearing.
The fees, projected to raise $300,000, were last imposed during another deficit period in 2002. Parent Steve Adamski said he remembered them vividly, and also remembered that the board and administration at that time said the fees would be dropped if an operating levy were passed. "It was on that basis I voted for the levy," he said.
Adamski warned the board that former Superintendent Dan Kaler and former Business Director Greg Hein told him that the fee program actually raised less money than they expected, as students and parents "found ways around" the system.  
Lindsay made a return trip to the podium to tell the board he was one of the people who suggested busing fees in 2002. He noted that the district's 2003 operating levy is still in force, and suggested imposition of busing fees now would result in voter revolt. "Voters understood when they voted for that levy that that transportation fee would disappear, and it did," he said. "You'll have a hard time passing (another levy) if you betray the voters who voted for that to get rid of the fee."

'Initiatives' could help
An early version of the budget cuts, circulated in December, included such ideas to draw students into the district as creating a language- or subject-based magnet school. Those ideas seem to have been scaled back for the time being; the only proposed initiative listed on the handout Jan. 31 is offering all-day, every day kindergarten, which Phillips said would address inequities in the district; currently there are students in half-day kindergarten whose parents cannot pay the fee the district charges for all-day kindergarten.
Although some parents in the auditorium were concerned that not all kindergartners were ready for all-day kindergarten and one asked if the program would turn into "a preschool or day-care," current kindergarten teachers say they would welcome the idea. "We have already experienced the academic growth these students show," kindergarten teacher Lori Raleigh said. "We've been waiting to do it for years."

Extracurriculars on the block
High school and middle school extracurricular budgets in the district face a $60,000 cut under the plan, which Superintendent Patty Phillips said was about a 6 percent cut; she also noted the extracurricular budgets "took quite a hit last year" too.
John Hunt, a North High sophomore who has been frequenting board meetings to lobby against the switch to a six-period day, predicts that now the board has approved the six-period schedule for high schools, electives like music will be harder to fit into student schedules. That's why it's even more important that students be able to pursue extracurricular activities, he argued.
Hunt, who listed among his own extracurricular activities debate, speech, mock trial, football and student council, said involvement in such activities opens up opportunities in college and in life long beyond an education career. "When cuts are made, students will lose opportunities, but these should not be among them," he said. "It's hard to join a team that's not there."
Andrew Steinberg, the only other teen at the gathering, said he was there to hear about the cuts and to support Hunt in his fight against extracurricular cuts. The North sophomore, who already has a pretty well-decorated Polar letter jacket, said, "They're going to cut a lot of very valuable programs that are very helpful to the students at both high schools. And I don't think the 'initiatives' they're proposing are going to drag people back into the district."
Anyone can submit ideas and feedback on the district's plans to the e-mail address or to the Business Services Office, District Education Center, 2520 E. 12th Ave., North St. Paul, 55109.

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