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School budget cuts debated
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MONROE - The Monroe school board grappled Monday with budget cuts it will implement if a four-year, non-recurring referendum to cover operating expenses is rejected.

Judgment day on a series of cuts - and authorizing the $8 million referendum - is expected to come at a special board meeting Monday, Jan. 31.

The board has until Feb. 18 to finalize an April 5 referendum.

"I think we learned from our neighbors that if we say we are going to do it, we have to do it," said Monroe School District Superintendent Larry Brown, referring to cuts the district finalizes in a final referendum proposal it will take to voters.

The board reviewed a plan for 5 and 10 percent reductions in co-curricular activities that would include athletic and academic activities at the high school.

Board member Bob Erb was a proponent of cutting five percent of co-curricular activities at the high school or $24,500 - whether the referendum passes or not. The five percent reduction in co-curricular activities, if approved, would include uniforms, dues and fees, equipment purchases, supplies and employee travel.

"Twenty-five thousand dollars doesn't seem like a huge number," Erb said. "It's important perspective to remember that everyone has skin in the game. It wouldn't close the gap by itself. It's a gesture important and meaningful."

Without a referendum, the district is projected to have deficits of about $1.6 million in the 2011-12 school year; $2.3 million in the 2012-13 year; $3 million in 2013-14 school year; and $3.6 million in 2014-15. The district has already offered to make $532,000 in cuts in the 2011-12 school year regardless of whether a referendum is approved.

Some of the cuts, which could come with or without new money, include personnel - a teacher at the virtual school, a core classroom teacher at the middle school, a technology education teacher at the high school; and a special education teacher.

The 1.5 foreign language positions identified wouldn't come until a second round of cuts if the referendum failed. However, some board members were leery of eliminating a foreign language program that's a requirement for college.

"It sends the wrong message to put it on there, that this school doesn't care about academics," Board Member Dr. Mary Frantz said.

Erb said that students will be looking at foreign languages and if the district offers only one that could signal that the board isn't serious about a college bound direction.

"If it costs us kids and families to our district that would be a bad idea, " he said.

The district is at the end of its four-year, non-recurring referendum, in which voters allowed the district to exceed revenue caps by $8.3 million. The district was able to make cuts in administration and other areas over the past four years, using a little more than $4 million of the total amount authorized by the last referendum.

Monroe School District Business Manager Ron Olson said the district has a track record that shows if they don't need the money from the referendum, they won't spend it.

"The reality is it's still big and scary numbers going forward," Olson said.

If the referendum fails, the board has targeted $489,734 in a first round of cuts for 2011-12, including $100,000 in maintenance and $50,000 from technology budgets districtwide. The other cuts under the plan - if approved and a referendum fails - include three special education aides at the high school, 1.5 full-time custodial positions at elementary schools, a full-time elementary teacher, a full-time teacher and secretary at the virtual school; and gifted overloads at the elementary schools. The district could cut a half-time custodial position at the middle school and high school, as well as 9th-hour overloads at the middle school.

The second round of $478,550 in cuts - if the referendum fails - include 1.5 full-time foreign language teachers.

Even if the district cuts everything it proposes before a referendum, and also makes both rounds of cuts, it still would have to cut 33 positions to meet the projected 2014-15 deficit, officials said.

As part of Monday's discussion, the board also reviewed a comparison of the number of administrators in 13 public schools in the Badger Conference.

Monroe - along with Portage, Mount Horeb and Reesdburg - all have the least amount of administrators (11) of the conference's schools.

The district enrollments of Mount Horeb, Portage and Reedsburg are 2,200 to 2,500 and similar to Monroe.

Despite the comparisons showing Monroe on the lean side, Board Member Les Bieneman advocated for a total dollar amount to be slashed from administration costs. Bieneman said if the board cut about $50,000 from administrative costs, it would get everyone's attention.

"That way everyone shares in the pain of the whole thing," he said.

Some district leaders take on extra administrative duties at the virtual school and Brown said the district pays about $10,000 total in stipends for administrative duties at the virtual and charter schools.

Erb said if Monroe was in the middle of the pack with the number of administrators compared to other Badger Conference schools, he would support a reduction. However, he said Monroe's situation may be different from other schools who don't have virtual and charter schools.

Board member Larry Eakins said that administrators, like teachers, will take on a bigger burden with more duties.

"If we are putting any lip service to gifted and talented that may include principals and curriculum coordinators," Eakins said of them playing a larger role.