Burnsville-Eagan-Savage District employees and community members Wednesday told the Board of Education music programs, sports and college-credit classes are key to equitable learning among all students and shouldn’t be cut any further.

Many also called on the district to cut administrative positions and costs if cuts must be made.

A crowd of around 200 turned out for a public budget forum regarding millions of dollars of proposed budget cuts and changes meant to close next school year’s projected $7.7 million deficit. The meeting marked the first public forum on budget cuts in 11 years.

The proposed budget adjustments will be discussed at the Feb. 21 school board work session, and a revised plan will be presented at the Feb. 28 school board meeting.

Lagging state and federal aid led to around $5 million of the projected deficit, said Lisa Rider, district executive director of business. District officials continually point to a shortfall in government support of mandated special education services, for example, which Rider said cost the district $12.5 million out of the district’s general fund last year.

She said another $1.9 million stems from the district’s declining enrollment over the past several years, which also means less state money.

The budget proposal currently calls for at least $6.6 million in savings, but there are options on the table to cut deeper as well.

The proposed elimination of elementary band, strings and middle school orchestra to save $287,000 drew the most opposition from speakers.

Sonja Langsjoen, a band teacher at William Byrne Elementary, said music brings together students of all backgrounds in the district and previous budget cuts have hurt the district’s music programs. Elizabeth Berger, an eight grader in the district and orchestra member, said students don’t have equal access to private lessons, a concern echoed by others.

Kristen Scheuneman, a Lakeville parent who open enrolls her three children into the district, said the orchestra program is a regional standout and enhanced music opportunities draw families to the district. She said the cuts to schools were “catastrophic.”

The proposed elimination of digital learning specialists who coach teachers and students through the use of technology in the classroom also caused outcry. Several district employees said they believe the proposal breaks promises made to voters in 2015 when the district passed a levy referendum.

Scheuneman and others also called on district officials and administrators to tighten administrative spending.

John Soderholm, a counselor at Metcalf Middle School and Burnsville High School coach, questioned the district’s financial report, which says administrative spending aligns with neighboring districts at around 4 percent and is below the state average.

John Soderholm

John Soderholm, a counselor at Metcalf Middle School and Burnsville High School coach, expressed concern over administrative spending at the Feb. 13 budget public forum.

Soderholm said this number is skewed by the way the district classifies administrative jobs, and administrative spending is actually around 7 percent. Referring to a district survey of district families who enroll elsewhere, he said none mentioned a shortage of central office personnel as the reason.

The comment brought laughter and applause from the audience and also elicited one of several reminders from Board Chair Abigail Alt that audience responses were not permitted in order to maintain decorum.

Local resident Brian Fischer said he wonders where his family will decide to enroll when his two children reach school age. He compared the district’s proposal to a hypothetical situation of trying to save money within his family.

“Our very last thing we would ever look at is eliminating anything from our children,” Fischer said. He also pointed to administrative spending and called for proof that cuts impacting students were the “very last straw.”

David Limberg, a parent of a Burnsville High School student on the ninth grade basketball team, spoke against the idea to eliminate all middle school and ninth grade athletics to save roughly $239,000. He said athletics foster friendships and greater academic achievement in a district grappling with school violence and bullying.

He said the value of athletics isn’t reflected on the scoreboard but rather in the impact they have on students like his son, who is one of two white players on his team.

“Every time my under 5-foot son gives his over 6-foot Somali teammate a high five or helps him off the floor or vice versa, our community comes closer together,” Limberg said. “These shared experiences made possible because of basketball are irreversible and inspiring.”

Budget cuts threatening the district’s rollout of classroom technology sparked many comments.

Alexander Tofte, an elementary digital learning specialist, said that the district’s investment in classroom devices will go to waste without a trained coaching staff.

“My ultimate fear is that without technology coaching at the elementary level, VisionOne91 will remain just that — a vision,” he said, referencing the district’s redesign launched through the 2015 referendum.

Several digital learning specialists said the district is known for being an innovator in classroom technology, and eliminating technology staff may impact voters’ trust during future levy referendum requests.

Sahro Abdullahi, a cultural liaison in the district and district parent, spoke on behalf of several community members to save programs and support staff positions that create a positive experience for Somali students. She said education assistants are sometimes the only district employees that resemble Somali students, allowing students to envision themselves in future careers.

She also advocated to keep after-school programs, which she called a “safe haven for kids who don’t have anywhere to go.”

Last year, Burnsville High School ranked second in the state for most college credits earned from the University of Minnesota’s College in Schools program. Participation the university classes offered through the regular school day amounted to 2,599 college credits, or approximately $1.28 million in tuition dollars last year, the district reported.

However, the budget proposal calls for CIS classes to be eliminated if there is an Advanced Placement alternative for college credit in the subject.

Several students were angered by this decision, stating that AP classes aren’t equivalent to CIS programs because AP credits rely on a final test score, therefore disadvantaging students with test anxiety and muddying the waters for which scores colleges accept.

Additionally, AP tests cost money, and CIS gives students an opportunity to earn college credits they couldn’t otherwise afford, several students said.

Despite growing tensions over the district’s financial picture, Rider said that budget cuts will continue in future years without major changes to state and federal funding.

“The Board truly appreciates the students, staff and community members who came to the public hearing to share their thoughts and ideas with us,” Alt said in a statement following the forum. “They made it clear that our schools and programs play important, positive roles in their lives. The fact that we face these decisions at all is unfair to our community and reflects how seriously underfunded schools are in Minnesota.”

Christine Schuster is a reporter for the Savage Pacer.

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