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Fillmore Central makes budget cuts

Fri, Mar 14th, 2008
Posted in Education

PRESTON - The Fillmore Central School Board held a special meeting to decide on needed budget cuts on March 11.

Superintendent Myrna Luehmann said that the process started in November when faculty members were asked for their input on how to reduce the budget. Final recommendations were made available to board members in late February, with instructions not to discuss them publicly. She suggested that the final cuts of more than $200,000 were arrived at with the help of administrators, principals, and staff.

Luehmann warned of the future need for more budget cuts. She said that she made an effort to stay away from the class room and to pave the way for the future so as not to face the same need for budget cuts next year. Her most controversial recommendation was to eliminate the K-8 principal position with the duties of that position being combined with her position as superintendent.

In addition Luehmann recommended that the district office be moved to Preston. With the added responsibilities for the superintendent in that office, secretarial and business staff would not be cut. She stressed that her recommendations were made without focusing on the individual people affected.

Dissension from the Board

Board member Deb Ristau was troubled by the process and the lack of openness with the public. She noted that she has served on the board for five years. Last time budgets were addressed, Ristau said that there were open meetings allowing discussion from the public. She asked the board to step back and think about cutting the K-8 principal position. Ristau asked that they take time to look closely at all the options. She acknowledged that numbers are down in both classes and in athletics. Ristau insisted that cuts should come in athletics before the classroom as the district's primary job was to educate kids.

Ristau said that the proposed reconfiguration of the administrative positions needs to be explained to the public. She made a motion to table any decision and hold a public meeting to take input from district citizens. This was seconded by board member John Torgrimson.

Torgrimson echoed Ristau's feelings. He said that he was disappointed that the recommendations are just now "seeing the light of day."

Board member Ron Stevens claimed that Luehmann has had input from knowledgeable people. Board member Michelle Topness insisted that this decision can't be tabled forever. Ristau's motion was defeated 5 to 2 with only Torgrimson supporting her.

Defending the cuts

John Torgrimson disagreed that the cuts stayed as much as possible out of the classroom, noting that of the first $148,000 in cuts, only $7,130 were non-academic. He suggested other ways of saving the district the $60,000 it was cutting with the administrative restructuring, including bringing the athletic director into the administration ($25,000), eliminating the late bus ($20,000), and summer rec program ($11,400).

Torgrimson suggested that rather than cut the K-8 principal position, the superintendent position could be shared with another district. He questioned whether some of the board members were serving their own agenda, suggesting that they were solving two problems at once by trying to remove K-8 principal Brenda Lentz, whom some had problems with, with the budget cuts.

Topness said that she doesn't like to take resources away from teachers and she added that Lentz does a good job.

Board member Craig Britton maintained that of the 10 recommendations made by Luehmann, eight of them were suggested by the two principals.

Board member Sue Ostrom said that the ten recommendations were a first step. She noted other issues like day care, summer recreation and possible changes in the athletic department may need to be addressed. She admitted that people are sometimes hostile when addressing changes for athletics. Ostrom suggested that some coach positions may need to be filled with volunteers.

Ron Stevens said that it is the board's job to make these decisions as they were elected to do just that.

Torgrimson questioned if Lentz could sue for wrongful termination. Luehmann said that as long as the board approved a motion for the reconfiguration, she could not sue. Luehmann added that if the position were to be reinstated in the next five years, Lentz would be first in line. The district's lawyer Steve Knutson approved the process of reconfiguration as legal.

The Decision

Stevens made a motion that the ten recommendations of the superintendent be accepted including the reconfiguration of the position of the superintendent, assuming the K-8 principal's responsibilities.

John Torgrimson insisted that this would be a move in the wrong direction and claimed that the process "smelled fishy."

Several academic staff spoke. Community Education Director Holly Kanengieter, stated that she was willing to organize a community forum to discuss the recommendations. Teacher Maggie Walsh said that the faculty had been asked to make suggestions, but without the opportunity for a back and forth discussion.

"We haven't been heard," Walsh said. She added that the staff feels they have been left in the dark.

Librarian Jill Eerdmans said that they were told there would be an active dialog between board members and teachers. She praised the K-8 Principal Lentz for consistency, bringing things up to date, and respected her knowledge and ability. She warned that students and staff will suffer a drastic loss without the current K-8 principal.

Parent Nancy Harrison maintained that a vote to terminate Lentz would be a mistake as it will hurt the district, the teachers and the kids. She asked the board to take longer and think about it.

Parent Teacher Committee President, Leslie Christensen said that in the last five years she has lived in three states and worked with four principals and that Lentz far exceeds all of them. She suggested that the way the board and the superintendent has gone about this process was backwards and underhanded.

The board voted on the ten recommendations and reconfiguration with a roll call. The motion passed with Ristau and Torgrimson voting against. Stevens, Ostrom, Sue Sikkink, Topness, and Britton voted for the recommendations and the resulting budget cuts.

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