Superintendent: Community faces tough choices for schools

February 21, 2011 by

Sister Marcia Allen, president of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, standing, welcomes a crowd of about 50 to the first talk in the 2011 Concordia Speakers Series at the Nazareth Motherhouse Monday evening.

Concordia Schools Superintendent Beverly Mortimer

Concordia Superintendent Beverly Mortimer, who wears a “no complaints” purple wristband, made it clear she was not whining about the challenges facing public schools in a talk Monday evening.

Instead, she told the crowd of about 50 for the first session of the 2011 Concordia Speakers Series at the Nazareth Motherhouse, “Our strength is our people — inside our buildings and outside in our community.”

Mortimer took nearly an hour to lay out both the strengths of strategic planning for the district and the challenges of dwindling budgets and legislative unknowns.

“People think I cry wolf when it comes to the budget,” said Mortimer, who has led Concordia’s USD 333 for eight years. “They asked me, ‘Where are the cuts?’ I’ve already cut the low-hanging fruit. Now we have to talk about the cuts none of us want to make.”

After her presentation, Superintendent Beverly Mortimer answers questions from the audience.

The first step in making those tough decisions, she said, is to follow the district’s strategic plan, which focuses on engaged learning, effective teaching and building trusting relationships. Those three priorities mean finding new and creative ways to help children learn, using technology to teach and learn more effectively and providing safe schools for students, staff and the community.

Meeting those goals is increasingly difficult, Mortimer said, when the state Legislature — responsible for paying for public schools — has defined its role as “funding a suitable education” for the state’s children.

“’Suitable’ is the key word there,” Mortimer said. “I don’t think what (legislators are) so much concerned with is what happens during class time; what they’re thinking about is extracurricular (activities) that can be eliminated. And that’s not just sports. It’s debate, the Scholar Bowl, cheerleading, 4-H…

“Those are the places where we as the community will have to make choices.”

And that’s already beginning, she noted.

The state bases its funding for education on a “per pupil” amount that’s multiplied by the number of full-time students in a district.

Audience members listen to a question asked during Monday evening's first talk in the 2011 Concordia Speakers Series.

For Concordia USD 333, the full-time enrollment is just over 1,100.

At the start of the 2008-09 school year, the per-pupil amount was $4,433 — but that was cut mid-year by the Legislature to $4,400. During last school year, the Legislature cut it again mid-year, to $4,218.

And it has already been cut once during this school year to $4,012 — while the governor’s not-yet-approved budget recommendation would cut it to $3,937 before the school year ends.

For this school year alone, that means a cut in state funding of $310,000. Plus, Mortimer noted, the district has learned that its health insurance premiums for employees will go up 15 percent this year.

“For us, that’s another $180,000. So with the cuts, if the governor’s budget is approved, we’ll have $500,000 less than we started with this year.”

The choice then comes down to increasing local taxes and fees or cutting the budget even more.

She ticked off some of the budget cuts that have already been made:

  • Selling the alternative high school building.
  • Reducing staff.
  • Shifting to a four-day workweek in the summer to reduce utilities.
  • Offering an early retirement incentive.
  • Reducing in-town bussing and eliminating activity bus routes.
  • Reducing summer school.
  • Eliminating the auto program at the high school.

In making those kinds of decisions, Mortimer said, she and the school board ask how the cuts affect the students, their families, school staff and the community.

As a part of the budget process this spring, she said she will ask taxpayers the same kinds of question in a “Survey of Patrons.”

“Basically, the survey will ask, ‘What is it that you can live without?’ she said.

After the survey is completed, Mortimer also plans to create a Patron Advisory Panel to help review the survey results and help in the tough decisions to come.

Having that kind of community involvement in the process is crucial, she said.

“I see myself as a steward of this district,” she told the crowd Monday evening. “It’s not mine, I am just the caretaker for you.”

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