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Large school district faces big budget cuts
By Tim Pugmire
Minnesota Public Radio
January 7, 2002
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Another financially-strapped metro area school district is preparing to make some potentially painful budget cuts. Officials in the Anoka-Hennepin district say the failure to get additional taxpayer support last fall has left them facing a $10.5 million budget shortfall. School board members will gather public input on proposed cuts during a series of public hearings the week of Jan. 7.

Music teacher Todd Weinhold teaches orchestra at Sandburg Middle School in Anoka. Weinhold is a first-year teacher, and he's expecting to be laid off by the school district.
(MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)

Rising costs and less-than-expected state funding last year forced the Anoka-Hennepin school board to lay off more than 100 teachers, and cut $6 million from the current budget.

An excess levy referendum on the ballot in November could have raised an additional $28 million each of the next eight years, but voters in the state's third-largest school district soundly rejected the property tax hike. The district now must find another $10.5 million in cuts for the next school year.

"We don't have any good choices left," Superintendent Roger Giroux says. "The issue that faces the board is, how do we put together the package that will take us to a new direction in the school system, and at least provides us with some strength for the education of our children? We're not looking at this as being just another casual budget cut that somehow we'll live through. We're talking about major changes in the way we deliver services to our students," Giroux says.

Those changes could include reductions in bus service, increases in student activity fees, the closing of one or more elementary or middle schools and a delayed opening of the new Andover High School.

The school board has a comprehensive list of proposed cuts totaling about $24 million to pick from. Giroux says the options also include cutting more teachers and increasing class sizes. He says that could hurt many of the district's 41,000 students.

The orchestra classroom at Sandburg Middle School is so crowded, students are not able to practice proper bowing technique for fear of hitting other students. See a larger image.
(MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)

"It's not just that the classes become crowded - that's part of it. It's that you eliminate electives. There are fewer choices. No matter how you do it you end up with fewer courses being offered and the students having fewer choices," says Giroux.

One of the choices currently available for middle school students is playing in the orchestra. At Sandburg Middle School in Anoka, 44 eighth graders and their instruments cram into the small classroom each day. Teacher Todd Weinhold says his students don't have enough room to properly bow their violins, violas, cellos and basses.

"They go one way and they hit somebody. They go the other way, they hit somebody else," Weinhold says. "So, they're using about the middle third of their bowing."

Weinhold says he's concerned the proposed budget cuts will result in even larger class sizes. He says the district will probably combine middle school orchestras and try to get by with fewer music teachers. Weinhold is a first-year teacher and isn't expecting to survive the cuts.

Sandburg Middle School will likely see some major changes as the school board ponders ways to meet a $10.5 million shortfall in the district's budget. Options include larger class sizes, elimination of elective courses, and possible closing of some elementary or middle schools.
(MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)

"In all honesty, I'm expecting to lose my job. But in the meantime, I'm here for the kids," Weinhold says. I'm just concerned that these kids get the best experience they can."

But Weinhold and other educators say that middle school experience could be greatly diminished with fewer elective courses. Music students, for instance, won't have room in their schedules to explore other interests. Sandburg Principal Michelle Langenfeld says electives are critically important for many students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

"Sometimes the reason middle school kids hook up to school is because of those programs. I'm very fearful that if we start to cut those opportunities, we will cut kids actually from being connected to school, and that's very frightening," Langenfeld says.

Public hearings on the proposed budget reductions are scheduled this week at each of the district's four high schools, in Anoka, Champlin Park, Coon Rapids and Blaine. School board members are expected to take action on the cuts by the end of January.

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