Board slashes staff

Board slashes staff by David Lias The roles they play in the Vermillion School District are varied � from high school computer and high school math instructors to elementary art, music in the lower grades and second and third grade teaching positions.

They won't be seen in the halls of Vermillion schools next year. The Vermillion School Board voted to eliminate the staff positions Monday and reduce the hours of some other employees in 2004-05 as it struggles to keep the school district's budget out of the red.

The board agreed to not renew the contracts of Sharon Hanson, Barb Rickord, Jo Ann Johnson, Betsy Simons and Jennifer Thul because of reduction in force.

Two other staff positions were cut without action by the board. One individual is not returning to his job with the district; another is retiring.

The school board also reduced the contracts of Virginia Talley, Anne Dunham, Pat Cafruny and Shari Kolbeck by 10 days each for the next school year.

Karol Brodersen's contract was reduced by .33 FTE (full time equivalent) for 2004-05.

The school board had hoped it could avoid cutting staff and programs with an opt-out of the state's property tax freeze.

Citizens overwhelmingly voted against that idea last fall, however.

The school district had projected that, without an opt-out, it will begin swimming in red ink in 2004-05 to the tune of approximately $900,000.

The negative balance would continue each year after that. By 2007-08, the school district would be facing a $4.5 million deficit. That total is more than half of the district's entire budget.

The district will receive a bit more in state aid for the next school year � totaling approximately $174,000.

However, its enrollment will decline by 32 students before the 2004-05 school year begins. That will take away $128,000, leaving a net increase in state aid in the $44,000 to $46,000 range.

High school guidance counselor Len Griffith addressed the board after the staff cuts were made.

He told them he understood how times have changed, and the board presently is facing many fiscal challenges.

The staff cuts, however, couldn't have come at a worse time, Griffith said.

"The graduation credits in 1990, which was not that long ago, were 16 credits," he said. "Next year, we move to 22 credits � an addition of six credits."

Students must complete a growing list of required classes, set by the state board

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of education, to graduate. They must meet additional requirements, set by the South Dakota Board of Regents, Griffith said, to attend a South Dakota university.

Despite those increased demands in math and science and other key courses, Vermillion has always reached the top, he said.

"The top tier is what Vermillion has always been about," he said.

University, college and technical school admission requirements are growing more and more stringent.

"It used to be that everyone had an opportunity to try," he said. "Not anymore. If you don't have an 18 ACT, if you don't have 2.0 in that core curriculum of three math, three science, four English, a social studies, a fine arts and a computer (class), and you don't go. It's that simple."

Preparing young people for these future challenges requires a sound educational foundation, Griffith said.

"It requires that educational vehicle, if you will, that we have provided, and we have students who have been very, very successful, and who continue to be," he said. "It saddens me to see us have to dismantle a vehicle � a vehicle that has taken students so far for so long."

Griffith said people need to begin to understand that education is growing more expensive and larger because of the additional requirements that must be provided for students to be successful in today's world.

"Whether they're going to work, whether they're going to college, whether they're going to a university or whether they're going to a tech school � I don't care," he said. "The world has changed, the requirements are different and the competition is horrendous."

He reiterated to the board that he understands how it has no choice but to downsize.

"I like to call it dismantle, because I think that's what I'm seeing us have to do," Griffith said. "Our educational vehicle has to be dismantled to carry more passengers with fewer safety features for our success.

"I don't know how that works for you, but it doesn't really run out real true for me when I see some of the students," he said.

The reductions in force approved by the board Monday, Griffith said, will lead to an increase in class sizes.

He fears the school district will soon reach a point where it won't be able to meet the needs of all of its students, and, out of frustration, they will drop out.

"I'm looking to the board, I'm looking to the public, I'm looking to the parents, as a counselor ? for some direction for this long ride," he said. "How do we put this vehicle back together; how do we make it safer?"

For years, the Vermillion School District has been known not in South Dakota but throughout the Midwest for its excellence. It has continually received accolades for the curriculum and programs it offers students as they prepare for their futures, he said.

"What I'm asking for is that we begin to somehow, with direction from our parents and our public, to not allow this vehicle to be dismantled," Griffith said. "To not allow this educational vehicle to slow down and not be able to meet the needs of our students.

"I hope that we never have to do that."

Vermillion School Board President Tom Craig told Griffith he fully understands his concerns.

"You mention that you are looking for guidance from the board, from parents, but I think it is significant ? in our last opt-out only 17 percent of the voters even came out to vote," Craig said, "and have a voice with what's going on in the Vermillion School District and with this vehicle that provides an education to their children."

The board, he said, may not have effectively communicated with district patrons.

"We didn't make the case correctly or motivate the people who are interested," Craig said. "I'm sure the board has the bulk of the responsibility here, but at least from the last election, the 17 percent that bothered to vote � they spoke."

Craig said the school board is trying its best to minimize the impact on students while being forced to cut staff.

Superintendent Bob Mayer said that despite its large fund balance, the Yankton School District recently cut 16 positions because of a $600,000 shortfall.

Lennox has opted-out for $275,000 and there will be a vote on that this spring. Scotland has also decided to opt-out.

The Burke School Board voted to opt-out for $300,000 and then was presented a petition forcing them to consider a reorganization plan. The district may consolidate with Gregory.

There have been 103 opt-outs attempted involving 70 school districts in South Dakota, Mayer said, since this process was allowed by the new funding formula in 1996-97.

Five districts that have had an opt-out no longer exist. Thirty-two have been uncontested. "That is generally the case with small schools who have to either close the doors or opt-out."

The Bristol School District opted-out for $500,000 last year. Its total enrollment was 1,000 students at the time, meaning the opt-out was $5,000 per student.

"Eighty percent of the public showed up to vote on that opt-out," Mayer said, "and 82 percent of them voted for it."

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