By Jason Schmucker
Nearly 100 people packed Waconia city hall for the April 10 meeting of the Waconia school board to voice their displeasure with proposed cuts to elementary music and physical education programs after enrollment for the current school year fell well below expectations.
For those gathered, though, it was moot point, as district Superintendent Pat Devine explained.
“The school board members do not vote on programing changes unless you cut or totally eliminate a program. So there is no vote – I know a lot of the emails I got were ‘Please don’t vote,’ or ‘Hold your vote.’ The programing changes are made at the administrative level,” Devine said. “Every year we massage programing as needed. This programing change is managerial, it is not a board-level decision.”
The conversation was spurred by sluggish growth in enrollment during the current year. District officials had projected growth of about 110 students – in reality, enrollment grew by only 20 students. The drop-off in enrollment led the district to dip into its fund balance and deficit spend about $1.2 million – well more than the $500,000 the district had expected to deficit spend this year.
To cope with the financial impact of lower-than-expected growth this school year, the district has restructured the specialist rotation at the elementary level and reduced staff by 5.5 full time employees. The last time the district made similar staffing adjustments was 2003, according to district officials.
At the elementary level, there will be a new specialist rotation that includes more than an hour of music, phy ed, art and Spanish each week. Currently, elementary students get 100-minutes weekly of music and phy ed and 1-hour of art instruction. Students in kindergarten through second-grade don’t currently receive Spanish instruction. The new model will offer Spanish to those grades.
Officials believes there are many benefits of the plan for the 2017-18 school year, chief among them returning 100-minutes of weekly core curriculum time to elementary students.
Those that came to protest the cuts disagreed.
“I can only speak as the father of two boys at Bayview. I never thought it was possible for them to expend so much energy,” said resident Nate Albi. “I know from my experience with them it really is beneficial for them to get that energy out in order for them to sit down and be able to concentrate. I would be opposed to any cuts to the system as they are.”
I’m just a mom trying to keep up with kiddo activities,” said Jennifer Vick. “I support academics – I support it a lot. But I believe there are studies that indicate music, art and physical education benefit the whole child.”
Vick asked if the district had considered dialing back screen time in classrooms instead of cutting the phy ed and music offerings.
“I have also seen pediatric studies that indicate screen time should be limited,” Vick said. “What else has been considered?”
Not all district staff stands behind the reductions, either.
I’ve been a music teacher here in this district for 31 years. My heart belongs to this district,” said Kari Werdahl, vocal and classroom music teacher. “I’m here because it has been a very sad week for our elementary schools and staff. On behalf of 1,800 – give or take a few – children, I’m speaking for them. I’m not speaking for me or my program, I’m speaking because I’m passionate about what’s best for the whole child.”
Werdahl said she was concerned about the district simply becoming a “status quo” district among Minnesota schools.
“For some schools, 63 minutes of specials would be a gift. But what we are heading for is status quo. But here in Waconia – a longtime arts supporting community – this is a historic cut. This is part of our brand,” she said. “Academics are a given, but it’s the relationships and other experiences that helps students create their own success stories. Why would be decimate and cut something we do so well and research says is beneficial?”
Kindergarten teacher Doug Sayles questioned the benefit of expanding Spanish to the younger grade levels, as he has seen no evidence that teaching Spanish at that young age in limited doses has any lasting impact.
“I don’t think they are going to absorb very much,” Sayles said. “I think the wagon is in front of the horse right now.”
Sayles said he was hopeful that the district may yet change course.
“We made a decision, I don’t think its final. As you have this conversation, I’m encouraging you to stop and really think about out how can this all be delivered in a way that is not detrimental to what we already have,” Sayles said.
Devine thanked everyone for coming out and sharing their viewpoints with the board.
“Thanks for being here. It’s great to see the passion for programing in our school district,” Devine said.