As students prepare to return to school Sept. 2, they're more worried about school shopping than their school district's financial status.
But for students in the Brainerd School District, and to a lesser degree students in the Crosby-Ironton School District, they likely will notice big changes this school year that are a direct result of necessary budget reductions.
Brainerd has closed two of its eight elementary schools, Lincoln and Whittier, and has cut a total of 86.8 full-time-equivalent positions within the district, or 10 percent of its entire staff for this fall. About one in six remaining teachers has been relocated to a new building, a new grade level or a new discipline. In some schools, for instance, like Lowell Elementary School, the new students will make up about 40 to 50 percent of the student body. Harrison Elementary School will experience about a 50 percent changeover in its teaching staff and about one-third new students.
As a result of budget cuts and new district policies in effect this fall to help trim expenses, nearly 1,000 elementary students will be switching schools and 723 students, mostly elementary students, will not be riding the bus as they did last year because they live a mile or less from school. They'll have to walk to school - which could pose safety concerns - or get a ride with their parents - which could create additional traffic congestion, along with more safety concerns, before and after school.
Brainerd assistant football coach Scott Parsons led a group of Brainerd Warrior linebackers during the first day of football practice Monday. Thanks to the Warrior Way Inc.'s community fundraising efforts, along with increased participation fees, all athletic offerings from last year were able to be offered this fall by the district despite budget reductions. Participation levels are estimated to be about 85-90 percent of last year's levels, which further allowed the district to offer its extracurricular programs. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls» Purchase reprints of this photo.
And every child within the district, from kindergarten through 12th-grade, will experience larger class sizes. Students in the middle and high school grades also will notice decreases in program offerings. The district has lost about 100 teachers through budget reductions in the last five years. Fewer teachers means fewer class offerings.
"There are a number of situations where elementary school parents find themselves charting a new place for their family and that's significant," said Brainerd Superintendent Steve Razidlo. "The hope is that all of our community gets used to the changed system and is able to accommodate most of the change in a productive way. But that won't be without numerous individual family situations finding resolutions along the way. It will not and has not been a set of easy changes to adopt and there are still families who are very anguished about our school closures and about relationships at current elementary schools that are now severed because of the changes in the school district's finances."
Razidlo said school officials met last week with Brainerd, Baxter and Crow Wing County officials, along with area law enforcement officials, to discuss the increased numbers of students walking to school and additional traffic congestion anticipated at the schools as a result of the new transportation policy. Razidlo said school officials are hoping for an increased law enforcement presence at each of the school buildings during the first part of the school year. It's unknown how many students will be walking to school and where problems will arise until the school year actually begins.
"We won't really know how this is going to be until we get there," said Razidlo.
While there was a question of whether all sports and activities could be saved once much of the funding was cut to those programs, the district has been pleasantly surprised at what has happened. Warrior Way Inc. raised enough funds to support all school sports and activities but school officials wondered if the increased participation fees would cause students to quit these activities or athletics this fall. Varsity fall sports practice began Monday and Razidlo said it doesn't appear this is a problem. He said participation levels are at about 85-90 percent of last year's participation levels. While some cuts will have to be made to make up for the slight reduction in participation, such as the elimination of some assistant coaching positions, none of the activities or athletics will need to be cut due to low participation levels.
"That's a testament to the kids and to the families and to the traditions and importance that families put on these activities," said Razidlo. "The mission for extracurriculars is to help develop a young person, to extend and complement the learning in the classroom. We think the community and the students have really demonstrated how important these activities are to them."
Razidlo asked that parents and community members be patient through the upcoming changes in the district. With more than 70 teachers changing classrooms, buildings or disciplines, an administrative reorganization that is not yet complete, and every employee group within the district having to make further staffing adjustments, Razidlo said it isn't going to be easy.
Mikayel Kleinsasser, a Lowell kindergartner, played with a walkie talkie last week during Camp Kindergarten at Lowell Elementary School. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls» Purchase reprints of this photo.
Another big change parents of high school students will need to be aware of are the more rigorous state graduation requirements. This year's juniors will be the first class to be required to pass a ninth-grade state writing test, a 10th-grade state reading test and most notably, an 11th-grade state mathematics exam in order to receive a diploma. These are not just basic skills tests, Razidlo emphasized. Statewide only 34 percent of juniors passed the MCA-II mathematics test last year and Razidlo said the state is only expecting about 60-70 percent to pass the math exam once it becomes a graduation requirement this year.
"What about the other 30 percent statewide?," said Razidlo. "What will we do to help those who may need remediation or extra services in order to meet that graduation requirement and how much will they help themselves? I think we will have to shift areas of need in areas we've never done before. It's another challenge for us and it's only a year away."
While the C-I School District has spent the past few years cutting back on its programs due to budget reductions, the district has decided this fall to switch from a seven-period to a six-period school day so high school students wouldn't be stuck in two or three study halls because of a lack of teaching staff or class offerings.
"It was getting to be more and more difficult all the time to fill a seven-period day for the kids," said C-I High School principal Jim Christenson. "And it wasn't that we cut so much last year, it's that we've been cutting and cutting and cutting and we reached the straw that broke the camel's back."
The school day at C-I was shortened to make up for the lost one-hour period and will impact all grade levels. Students will start school at their regular time - 8:20 a.m. for Cuyuna Range Elementary School students and 8:30 a.m. at the high school - but they will be let out of school earlier. The high school will dismiss students at 2:35 p.m., compared to 3:30 p.m. last year, and CRES students will be dismissed at 3 p.m.
C-I Superintendent Jamie Skjeveland said the condensed school day will make it more meaningful for students, they'll be busy taking six classes rather than sitting in study halls. Two academic support areas will be available after school at the high school to help students with their homework and the computer lab and media center will be open until 3:30 p.m. for additional support.
"They'll pretty much see that school will be going on as normal," Christenson said of students this fall. "We've lost a few more hours of electives but again with one less hour to fill, kids aren't really going to notice it."
Skjeveland said that thanks to the contributions made by the community, the high school will still be able to offer after school athletics and activities. The community raised $250,000 to keep its athletic programs. A community group also raised enough funds to save after school arts programs, although money will still need to be raised if the high school will be able to host a prom, have a yearbook publication this year or participate in Knowledge Bowl. Skjeveland said he's optimistic that funds will be raised to support a prom but there hasn't yet been any fund-raising efforts underway yet to save the Knowledge Bowl team or develop a yearbook staff.
The C-I School Board decided last month to ask voters for another operating levy referendum this fall. The Brainerd School Board has no plans to attempt to pass another operating levy referendum this fall.
JODIE TWEED may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5858.
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