The International Falls School Board Monday approved reductions in teaching positions, staff, and class sections to avoid a projected budget deficit next school year.

With little discussion, the board unanimously approved the cuts. Without cuts in spending, the district’s budget was projected to have an approximate $700,000 shortfall in expenditures for the 2012-13 school year. The board was told in February by Stacy Frederickson, the district’s business manager, that keeping the budget as it was would put the district “in the red.”

“Our revenue stream is based on student count, and our expenditure budget needs to meet that revenue stream,” Superintendent Jeff Peura told the board. “This resolution will remedy it.”

The resolution will eliminate 2.86 full-time equivalency (FTE) positions at the teaching level, 0.75 FTE secretarial positions and 0.5 FTE custodial positions. Exact positions to be eliminated or reduced is expected to be announced next month.

“It doesn’t mean we take all from the high school or all from the elementary school — there can be some movement in staff,” Stuart Nordquist, board chair, said.

A school district document said the retirement of custodian Bob Hair, which was approved at the meeting, will be replaced by half of Hair’s hours. “We will try to operate in this configuration to see if it will work,” the document states. “The reduction of a secretary position will require restructuring of the office staff personnel to cover the needs of the district. We have begun cross-training our present staff in preparation for such a reconfiguration next year.”

The district has also had five recent paraprofessional resignations, which will not be replaced.

“This allows us to review our programming and needs for next year without (paraprofessional) layoffs,” the school district document states.

Other cuts

Other reductions in programs will save the district about $271,000 from the projected $700,000 deficit.

This includes reductions in elementary class sections that will take place: kindergarten and grades 1, 4, and 5 will  be reduced from four classes for each grade to three sections; grade 2 will remain at four sections, and grades 3 and 7, which are currently at three sections, will increase to four, based on an increase in the number of students expected to enroll in each grade for next school year.

These changes will partly determine which staff members or teachers will be laid off. Peura told The Journal he will meet with Jerry Hilfer, principal of Falls Elementary and West End Elementary schools, and Tim Everson, Falls High School principal, to determine the best way to make the cuts in positions. The group will make recommendations of specific positions and bring those names to the school board to consider in April.

Other shifting in spending to remedy the budget were approved, including leasing a school bus over five-years instead of purchasing one for about $100,000, Peura said. Instead of the bus purchase, the district will purchase a handicapped van, which was planned to be purchased next year. The van costs $60,000 up front, but the district will receive revenue from various areas including medical assistance to pay for it, Peura told The Journal.

Another shift to balance the district’s budget includes a shift in the technology budget. The district will purchase new technology for classrooms and computer labs this summer, but instead of paying for it in one year, it will be stretched out over the span of three years.

Religious education release

Several leaders from area churches asked the board to reconsider changes made last fall to “release time” — time given to students in grades 3 through 6 who choose to leave school for religious instruction at church. The issue brought a large crowd to the meeting.

Release time changed last fall from 13 weeks to 10 weeks. The other change was teachers continued regular instruction in classrooms during release time, instead of scheduling “free time” during that time span.

Release time takes place every Wednesday morning in the fall until around Thanksgiving time. Before the change, release time continued three additional weeks, until around Christmas time.

“Our intent is not to be adversarial, but to be cooperative,” said Full Gospel Fellowship Rev. Ron Hostetter as he addressed the board. He asked that release time “be restored back to its original schedule” and that during release time, classroom instruction would not continue regularly, but be “minimized.”

“We ask that you help it out with something (a school subject) that’s not so critical during (religious) instruction time,” Hostetter said. “This release time is important to raise up children in a way that they become good citizens.”

Rev. Cory Rintala of Northwoods Bible Church, Ray, said he and others at the meeting felt they “needed to speak up before the program is completely eliminated.”

Several church leaders also spoke in favor or in acceptance of the change.

Rev. Stephen Olson, Zion Lutheran Church, said the church council is appreciative of the current release time and of the “historic community-church covenant that does not permit the scheduling of events and games” on Wednesdays after 6 p.m. — when religious instruction and confirmation classes are held, he said.

Olson said his church supports the reduction in release time weeks.

“We also encourage you to allow teachers to continue to teach during the time when students are released from schools for religious education,” Olson said.

Rev. Sue Hamly, Faith United Church, echoed Olson’s statement. She said parents of children who participate in release time and are members of her church are in favor of a reduced release time schedule.

“They believe teachers should definitely be allowed to follow a normal classroom routine of teaching those children who remain in class while others are attending release time,” Hamly said to the board. “They also suggested that release time could be offered before school so that none of the children attending would miss any class time.”

Offering release time at the last hour of the school day would also be a better option than the current system, said Rev. Irv Arnquist of First Lutheran Church.

“It is my impression that the way we are currently doing the program must be extremely time-consuming and disruptive with regards to its effect on the education program,” Arnquist said.  “In the middle of a Wednesday morning, a teacher has to remember to release a bunch of kids, sometimes getting them into snow pants, boots and jackets — and then head them out the door. When they come back, I can imagine a lengthy time before that teacher has once again regained the attention they had acquired before releasing the kids. I wonder if this is necessary.”

Arnquist added that having release time at the end of the school day has worked in other communities.

“It’s what was done in almost every community where I’ve been a pastor,” he said.

Elementary teacher Kayla Gilbert spoke about the impact that release time has on her students.

“We cannot instruct students if they are not present,” Gilbert said at the meeting. “It became a difficult scheduling issue. We were not able to teach for a full part of the morning, and we were then left to babysit the remaining students. Our school has been put on watch for AYP (adequate yearly progress by the federal government). I don’t think it’s fair to start not teaching again during release time.”

She also said an advertisement paid for by some area churches published in The Journal earlier this month was “a slam to our school.” The ad, signed by nine area church leaders, indicated that the International Falls School District’s change leaves students choosing release time “penalized for participation.” The ad highlighted the reduced number of weeks for release time and states, “To its credit, Littlefork school supports RT (release time) all the way to the end of April and provides bus transportation!”

Gilbert said a compromise can be made, and “it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.” She suggested offering release time during afternoons because mornings are “prime learning time” for elementary students.

“We’re not trying to squash or eliminate instruction time. We live in a different world where we have to meet academic requirements, and we put a lot of pressure on our educators to perform,” Peura added. “Every minute for us is important for instruction time. We want you to know, we do value what you’re bringing to us.”

Peura told The Journal he and Hilfer will meet with area church leaders to discuss a possible solution.

“We’re still going to educate students, that’s our core mission,” Peura said.

Other business

The board unanimously denied a request for teacher early retirement incentives from Susan Savard and Debra Ciminski. The packages would have cost the district $13,000 for each teacher, totaling $26,000. The reasoning behind the requests are the district can hire entry-level teachers in place of the retired ones at a lower cost for salaries, which could potentially save the district money in the long-term.

The school board approved a request from custodian Bob Hair to be given a benefit as he retires in November. Board member Mark Lassila voted against it. The benefit requires that no sick time be used in the last year of working for the district. Hair used 4.5 sick days, disqualifying him for the benefit — getting 80 hours of extra pay at retirement. The board approved his request, making an exception. Peura had recommended that the board not approve it, because it was not in the terms of Hair’s contract.

“I cannot endorse working outside of the terms of the contract,” Peura said.

In other business, the board denied a bid for school photographer contract by Enstrom Studios, the current contract-holder and lowest bidder out of three bids, despite Peura’s recommendation to approve the bid.

“Enstrom offered the lowest prices, in addition to extra items free of charge,” Peura said. He told The Journal the company also provided the school — free of charge — with discs of student photos and identification badges, which are important for security reasons.

The board instead approved a contract with Cedulie’s Photography of Ranier.

“I want to make it known, since we put this out on a bidding process, the board needs to make sure the prices she shared on her bid for packages are the same prices that are presented to parents,” Peura said to the board. “I want that understood that the prices in the bid are what we expect.”

Peura updated the board on the high school pool renovation project, saying the concrete removal was scheduled to be done this week and the contractors will begin working on sloping the pool.