Oelwein School District Superintendent Joshua Ehn spoke to the community about the school’s finances and budget reduction proposals during a public forum Tuesday evening at the Oelwein Middle School auditorium.
Ehn gave details on each of the 36 proposed cuts and their impact to the school district to the audience. He pointed to low state supplemental funding, increased special education expenditures, higher heating costs, increased costs for insurance and salaries as factors in the school’s budget shortfall.
Ehn said the School Board has been aware of the budget shortfall for some time and made decisions last year to reduce staffing levels and closed buildings to reduce the deficit in the general fund.
“Having not done that, we would have been talking about $1.5 million in cuts [instead of $800,000],” Ehn said. “There has been a significant amount of work that’s already been put in play to help the situation. It’s just kind of the last step to kind of fix the financial house and get ourselves in a really comfortable position fiscally.”
One of the proposals that drew some pushback from the audience was to eliminate sharing an industrial tech instructor with West Central School District, that would save the Oelwein district $27,895. The impact would be eliminating the RTC Manufacturing program, reducing time for Husky Construction and not being able to offer some welding classes.
Oelwein industrial technology instructor Jesse Dinsdale spoke in defense of keeping the shared instructor during the community input time. He said eliminating that position would hurt the school district down the road.
“That’s one position that we are putting out students into the community that are going to be employable,” Dinsdale said. “We are giving the community a need that we’re in desperate need of. We’re getting them employees that people need.”
Dinsdale said if the shared position is cut, it could put Husky Construction at risk since he would have to pick up the slack in taking on new classes.
“In the first two years of that program, we had 28 kids graduate,” Dinsdale said. “Of that 28, I know of 17 that are currently in those trades that are in this area that are working for a contractor or going to school to be a construction manager. Five of them are employed here in town as a HVAC professional, as an electrician and as a plumber.”
Two items within the potential cuts would affect Title I teaching and reduce the reading recovery position by one teacher. Title I teacher Lynette Rochford accepted early retirement and is this measure is accepted, she would not be replaced.
Wings Park Elementary first grade teacher Tera Sperfslage said 56 out of 96 first-grade students are being served by the school’s two Title I teachers. She raised concerns that it would leave reading recovery teacher Carrie Buggs all alone to take care of those students needs.
“Kindergarten to first grade is a big stepping stone,” Sperfslage said. “Kindergarten focuses on building your skills. First grade takes them and puts them into place, so that you actually begin reading.”
Oelwein resident Susan Mausser raised her concerns about cuts to fine arts, band and choral programs. There are two separate proposals to eliminate an art teacher and a band or choral teacher.
“There is no way that their students would not be deprived of opportunities and education beyond art without instruction from a trained art teacher in an art room, and without taxing our present classroom teachers to provide the same art instruction,” Mausser said.
A proposal to eliminate transporting students by bus that live within a mile of the school is being considered, since Iowa code only requires bus transportation for students that live two or more miles from their school. This reduction would save the school $18,600.
Oelwein resident Julie Woods raised concerns that eliminating a bus route may hurt future enrollment.
“I think we have a lot of parents who don’t have cars,” Woods said. “If we don’t provide transportation are we going to hurt our enrollment for smaller children? The biggest thing is the congestion at the Middle School and Wings Park, it’s already so crazy. Is there a solution to try to help those things?”
Although the school board will not implement budget cuts until March, two proposals have already been implemented. The school board passed measures to install LED lighting in all buildings and to move printing service contracts to a lease agreement. Those two policies have saved the school district over $83,000.
On top of those two reductions, the school board accepted the early retirement of four teachers during their January meeting, which will not be replaced.
Ehn said he does not want to make cuts, but it is necessary to get the school district back in good fiscal shape.
“I’ve been in the position before were I had to make cuts and had to deliver the paperwork to employees that would not be returning next year,” Ehn said. “Been there, done that, it’s not fun. I don’t wish it on anyone. Frankly, I don’t want to do it again, but I want to be here for a while and I want the district to be viable and survive.”