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Board decides not to reduce class sections
MONROE - Due to low kindergarten enrollment, the Monroe school board considered but ultimately decided against reducing one section of first grade in the district for next school year.

With only 131 kindergarten students this year and Parkside Elementary School first-grade teacher Jacqui Schutz requesting retirement at the end of the year, district administrators explored the option of reducing one section of first grade next fall at either Parkside or Northside Elementary School. Monroe District Administrator Rick Waski said doing so would save the district about $75,000 in a teacher's salary and benefits. District leaders project a deficit of $125,000 for next year that could have been cut to an estimated $50,000 if the first-grade teaching position was left unfilled.

After a long debate at Monday's board meeting about not wanting to move students to different schools nor switch teachers to different grade levels and an effort to maintain smaller class sizes, the board agreed to keep the current number of first-grade sections at each elementary school next year - three at Parkside, three at Northside and two at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School.

"We are not walking the walk if we do that (make the reduction)," said Bob Erb, Monroe school board president, citing the need for smaller class sizes and keeping connections with students. "It's a bit of a mixed message if we reduce. I've been on the board for 12 years, and we have made some cuts. We've done some salary freezes, let people go and shut down opportunities for kids, and no one has ever thanked me for that. From my standpoint, the tie goes to the kids."

Under the proposal, if one first-grade section was reduced and some students were moved to balance class sizes, the average class size for first grade would be 18.7 next year. If one section was reduced and students weren't moved, the average first-grade class size next year would be 24 students at Northside, 18 students at Abe Lincoln and 15.6 students at Parkside. By keeping the current sections, the average class size next year will be 16.3 students for each school.

Board member Nikki Matley said with the marketing and open enrollment campaign the district completed this year she questioned if having some students move to a different school would risk losing them from the district entirely, just for a one-year enrollment bubble.

Northside Principal Amy Timmerman was adamant principals didn't want to shuffle students to other schools. However, five years ago during a similar enrollment challenge with a class, Parkside Principal Todd Paradis said some students were forced to move schools.

"We feel like once they are at a school we would prefer to keep them there," Timmerman said. "It's not just a one-year consideration. It's five."

Each year, the school board will be faced with reducing a class section and changing a teacher to a different grade level as the class advances to the next grade level. Upsetting the work of teams of teachers was a concern, but it's a reality that will be crossed at some point.

"Every year, you are changing," Paradis said. "It's a different teacher moving to a different grade level. It's never an easy conversation when you have to ask a teacher to move to a different grade level."

Waski said based on the budget in coming years the district may have to reduce two positions.

Erb questioned whether the decision could be delayed until the district finds out if it has many more potential first-grade students who will open enroll to Monroe for next year.

"It's pretty early," Waski said of determining that number. "That is a question I would say we would know more in April. I would say the volume (of open enrollment) has been pretty consistent with the past. My gut feeling is the small number we would have would not change the class sizes very much."

Elementary principals in the district wanted a decision on whether a reduction would be approved because if not, they want to move forward with plans for next year and post a new first-grade teaching position.

"We already have a decreased amount of qualified applicants," Timmerman said. "There are a number of the same teacher applicants that are out there that are not good fits. The teacher education programs are declining."

Waski said the board wasn't required to take an official vote because the district was not adding a new position or reducing a teaching position. A majority of board members indicated in an informal thumbs-up poll that they wanted to maintain the current first-grade sections.