By Michael Howell
Faced with another budget shortfall in the coming year, the Stevensville School District Board of Trustees is considering a plan, submitted by Superintendent Kent Kultgen, to reduce the number of school administrators and switch from a high school and junior high configuration to a grades 7-12 system.
According to Kultgen the school is facing a $225,000 shortfall in the general fund budget for the upcoming 2012-2013 school year. The shortfall in funding is a result of a drop in enrollment numbers and the resulting decrease in per student funding from the state. Kultgen explained that the funding is based on the average of the last three years enrollment. Three years ago, according to Kultgen, the high school had 410 students. The following year it dropped to 360, bringing the average down. The good news is that this may be the last year that the school district will be facing budget reductions related to the dropping enrollment as it seems to have leveled off at 360.
Kultgen said that the aim was to implement cost savings measures that would have the least effect upon students. One of the most visible cuts that will help offset the shortfall, he said, will be the recommendation to eliminate one administrative position by reducing the number of principals in the K-12 system from four down to three. The reduction in principals would go hand in hand with a re-structuring of the configuration of the grades, abandoning the high school/junior high school configuration, and adopting a 7-12 configuration. The current configuration includes a high school principal and vice-principal, a junior high principal and a K-6 principal. The new configuration would include a 7-12 principal, a 7-12 vice-principal, and a K-6 principal. The names of the exact principals recommended for the new configuration will be announced at the March 13 board meeting at which adoption of the proposed re-structuring will be considered.
Kultgen said that the school has been coping with the progressive decrease in funding over the years by cutting programs and teachers.
“Now it’s time to cut the administration,” he said.
Eliminating a principal position is only one of the savings, according to Kultgen. He said there were other savings related to changing to a 7-12 grade system, such as a corresponding savings as teachers can be used more efficiently. Kultgen stressed the fact that even though the grades 7-12 will be combined into one administrative system, the same physical separation between the grades will be maintained. The students will not be mixed. It is the teachers who will move between buildings providing their expertise and skills to the whole 7-12 grade system.
Kultgen also said that some research supports the fact that transitions between schools, such as between elementary to junior high and junior high to high school, negatively impacts student academic performance. He said the new configuration would minimize the junior high to high school transition. By mixing teachers through all the grades the students, although physically separated in different buildings, will have an experience of continuity that can smooth the negative effects of the physical transition. He notes that research indicates drop-out rates are lower in 7-12 systems.
The challenge, according to Kultgen, will be ensuring that the new administrative team covers all the buildings with the required level of support. He said the culture of the junior high should not change that much since the students will remain in their own facilities. But both junior high and high school students will have to adjust to the new routine of the smaller administrative staff, he said.
Under the new configuration all staff will be available to teach any class grades in which they are certified. Kultgen said this does not mean that teacher assignments will be automatically switched around, but it does mean “if a need arises we can use the properly certified teacher to fill that position.” The staff too, he said, would have to adjust to the new routine of a smaller administrative staff.
Kultgen also said that all these cost savings would still not meet what is required to make up the $225,000 shortfall. He said other options were being pursued. In January the Board approved a teacher retirement incentive with a March 1 deadline for teachers to apply. That could produce some savings.
Kultgen said that health insurance premiums are predicted to increase but the exact amount will not be known until March. He said a favorable increase would substantially help reduce the deficit.
All other possible staff resignations will be coming in soon as the school year winds down. With each resignation, he said, the district can better pinpoint savings, if any.
Kultgen said that any current principal whose position was eliminated could continue employment as a teacher. He said the budget plan was being considered early to allow any potentially affected administrator a window of opportunity to apply for administrative work elsewhere if they so desired.
“I am very optimistic about the future of Stevensville School,” said Kultgen. “We are making the necessary adjustments in order to align our budget with enrollment. I can see this pruning of the educational tree will result in a stronger more efficient educational system for our students.” Kultgen said if the school should receive an increase in funding in the future, it would be prepared to use that money to get stronger and better equip the students with a global education.