When Rochester voters go to the polls November 6, they'll be voting on one item - money for schools. Last year people in Rochester refused, and the school board cut the district's budget by $9 million. This year, district officials are asking for less and getting the word out. Even so, educators worry predictions of an economic recession, world events and property tax reform will distract voters.
Rochester voters overwhelmingly rejected last year's $100 million referendum request. So this year, the Rochester School Board has returned with a well-researched proposal. They're offering a stripped-down, $39 million request over the next six years. Many students and teachers say the referendum is sorely needed to reduce class sizes.
Maggie Ryan, 13, is an eighth grader at Willow Creek Middle School in Rochester. She's at an after school rehearsal for the fall production of Oklahoma. She says she's annoyed with the size of her music class this year.
"Our music class is huge - like 90 students. It's terrible, it's very hard to focus," Ryan says. "They have to discipline all these children and the class doesn't progress in all the lessons."
Ryan gets individual attention after school with a volunteer who helps direct the play.
Lynette Lenoch-Craft, an eighth grade math teacher at Willow Creek Middle School, says every level of the school system suffered from last spring's cuts. But, she says, middle schools were the hardest hit.
"I was kind of complaining about the changes that have taken place at the middle level. And my friend told me, 'When a pipe is leaking you check the beginning and the end of the pipe, but very seldom do you look at the middle.' and we're experiencing a tremendous impact at the middle level," Lenoch-Craft says.
At the middle school level, fourth and fifth grade class sizes increased, and fine arts, gym, foreign language and vocational programs were cut. In the language department, French and German classes were cut entirely from the curriculum. As a result, the Spanish teachers had to revamp their lesson plans to incorporate students who had French and German the previous years and are new to Spanish this year.
In addition to losing a colleague to budget cuts this school year, Molly Theel, the art teacher, has to deal with a deep cut in her supply budget. Theel says art class is also offered less frequently this year.
"For those kids that come to school and the highlight of their day is art- the special talent there it's not being met," Theel says. "It is not a frill, it is not an elective, it is a basic."
While some classes took budget hits, math, science and English programs remain untouched. Lenoch-Craft, the math teachers, says it makes some teachers feel less valued.
"How do you say to a colleague, 'Your program isn't as important as mine?' It's been a very painful process. I can hardly get my hand out of last year to move forward this year, because I know what we had was so powerful for students. It's really hard for me - it's been really tough," says Lenoch-Craft.
Since spring budget cuts, when art, music and other classes were trimmed, the school day was also shortened. Those schedule changes took away all the teachers' team planning time.
Linda Brady has a sixth grade daughter at Willow Creek and a son who's a sophomore at Mayo High School. She's concerned about the possible implications this could have on the city of Rochester. She gauges the health of a community by the health of its schools.
"I just wish we could make all the people in Rochester understand how important it is to have a strong school district. There's quite a few retired people in Rochester, and I think they're worried what's going to happen with the economy, and taxes going up," Brady says.
About 20 percent of Rochester voters have school-age children. Matthew Wingren has a daughter in the Rochester schools. He'll vote yes on the referendum. He says many of his co-workers do not have children, and don't care.
"They haven't thought about it one way or other. If this is the only thing that's going to be on the ballot, they wouldn't make a special trip for it," Wingren says.
Low-voter turn out will work for or against the Rochester School District. It depends on who shows up.
Last year several organizations, including the chamber of commerce, opposed the referendum. This year every major city organization is supporting more money for Rochester schools.
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