Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools officials are heading back to the drawing board after School Board members criticized a preliminary proposal for millions of dollars in spending cuts and adjustments, including cuts in teaching staff.

Board members asked that district officials focus on the impact of their recommendations on student experience after a preliminary budget proposal included a recommended $2.8 million in cuts and $600,000 in new revenue.

District administrators earlier this year said they would recommend $3 million in cuts and savings to cover a budget gap mostly caused by lower enrollment than anticipated.

Superintendent Teri Staloch told the board Monday that she's looking into more extensive cuts in order to give the district a greater buffer for the financial impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

"We know that there were some uncertainties with the budget before COVID-19, and there continue to be some uncertainties," Staloch said. 

Board members nonetheless asked for a proposal that was closer to the original agreed-upon $3 million.

"Something that I had hoped might only be a one-year deal, I'm feeling, is going to be more of a multi-year process as far as reductions," Vice Chairwoman Stacey Ruelle said. "My concern is cutting this deep with some of these positions and them being direct supports to our students and our teachers."

Staloch, Assistant Superintendent Jeff Holmberg, Business Services Executive Director Julie Cink and Human Resources Executive Director Jim Quiram recommended a series of changes that would involve cutting teaching staff, leaving open positions unfilled and reducing the number of tech and special education support positions. 

Quiram said the district would cut 6 full-time-equivalent teaching positions from the elementary schools, 2.7 from the middle schools and 1.8 from the high school in order to reestablish a desired teacher-student ratio of 23.5-1, 30-1 and 32-1 respectively. 

"We would go through this process every year at this time of year," Quiram said. "You look at what those class sizes are, look at how many staff you have, and do the math." 

Several members pushed back on the idea that so many cuts would come from classrooms and positions that support teachers in their engagement with students — like the dean of students and district naturalist positions — and not from administrative positions.

"You don't manage by exception and make short-term cuts hoping that things get better in the long term unless you really have a long-term plan," Mary Frantz said. "If the long-term plan damages our ability as an organization to actually educate the kids, then it's usually a non-starter because you only delay the inevitable."

Staloch said that she would help keep administrative costs down by going without a salary increase for the final year in her three-year contract. She added that reestablishing classroom ratios was something the district had been working on for two years independently from budget conversations.

"We would have done this process no matter what, we would have looked at these numbers no matter what," Staloch said. "It's ironic that we went through this two-year process and found those numbers that we all agreed upon and also are in a position where we have to make budget reductions."

Director Jonathan Drewes said that if classroom ratios were used as reason to hire staff, it seems correct that they would be used to reduce staff as well. 

"That's being consistent with the principles that we build our budget on on an annual basis," Drewes said.

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