Rochester Public Schools cuts 75 full-time teachersby Sea Stachura, Minnesota Public Radio
Seventy-five full-time teachers at Rochester Public Schools lost their jobs last night. The district cut 44 elementary teachers and 31 secondary school teachers for the coming school year, which will lead to bigger classes and fewer support staff. The cuts come as the result of a $9.3 million district deficit.
Rochester, Minn. — This is Eric Christensen's third year teaching fourth grade at Bamber Valley Elementary School in Rochester. You might remember learning the multiplication tables in fourth grade.
"Yup. That's fourth grade. We do multiplication, we do long division," Christensen said.
Christensen said teaching math will be one of his favorite memories from this year. He's one of the 75 full-time teachers who lost their job. He sits in a coffee shop, surprisingly upbeat about the whole thing. He said he thinks he has a chance to be re-hired by the district. But his real concern is what fewer teachers mean for class size.
"Increasing class size, wow," Christensen said. "That's just, one of the worst things we could have cut, especially the first year. This is going to be a three year process. We're going to have to make cuts this year, next year and then the year after that. And to just hack teachers right away, I just worry if that was the right choice to do right away."
Most school districts in Minnesota are predicting shortfalls and acting to balance their budgets - and laying off teachers is just one move they're considering. Robbinsdale, for example, is closing three school buildings.
Hopkins considered cutting band programs, though that effort was later abandoned. The budget shortfall was such a concern in the rural Perham-Dent School District after a levy failed last fall that a group of students organized a bake sale.
If nothing changes financially, next year the Rochester district will need to cut another $10 million out of the budget.
The district has been public about its financial troubles. Superintendent Romain Dallemand said staff and community members submitted more than 6,000 ideas to cut the budget. Dallemand said cutting his five-person cabinet staff wouldn't have saved teachers. Twelve administrative staff did lose their jobs. Another 11 positions won't be filled.
"When you look at our administration we are bare bone," Dallemand said. "Because every cabinet member plays a significant role. By eliminating one, the impact will be felt directly in the classroom."
But students may notice more immediately that some of their teachers will be gone, and their classes will be bigger. Sheri Allen is the executive director of elementary and secondary education and said the recommended class size at the elementary school level will go up by three in the coming school year.
"Kindergarten we went from 17 to 20, in first grade we went from 20 to 24," Allen said.
In fourth and fifth grade the class size will go from 28 to 31. No electives are being cut, but Allen said at the middle schools courses won't be offered as frequently.
"Instead of four times a year, we're doing something three times a year," Allen said. "They go from nine weeks to 12, and then there are some reductions in those areas."
Rochester school board chair Mechelle Severson said these cuts aren't good for anyone. She said the district may need to go to the taxpayers with a referendum soon to generate more operating money.
"We can't continue to cut eight and nine and $10 million every year," Severson said. "If we think the numbers are high this year, I'm very fearful of what the numbers will look like next year, and what class sizes will look like."
Severson blamed flat state funding as part of the reason the district has such a budget shortfall. She said the district is also paying for a new school, and faces increased costs from bargaining contracts and health care.
District representatives have said that some teachers may be asked to return to their jobs as the next school year approaches. Eric Christensen hopes he'll be one of those teachers. But he said even if he is, he'll have a much harder time helping kids in the achievement gap. He said right now his math group for struggling learners has about 10 kids.
"Those small groups are one of the best ways to help the struggling students," Christensen said. "But when you increase class size, those small groups are less and less of a possibility. Now, a small group is 20. And that's small? I don't think so."
- Morning Edition, 04/22/2009, 7:20 a.m.