Jen Munson
Jen Munson
May 15, 2014



Cheers and applause filled the room as the Carroll Community School District board of education unanimously approved $650,000 in budget cuts - without eliminating any kindergarten through sixth-grade teaching positions.

The cuts include the majority of superintendent Rob Cordes' proposed reductions - elimination of the equivalent of 11 full-time positions, made possible by two layoffs and a slew of early retirements; line-item reductions achieved by changes in state law allowing districts to move specific expenses such as the Internet service costs to a building fund instead of the general fund; and filling remaining open positions with new candidates starting at lower salaries than their more-experienced predecessors.

The board opted not to eliminate a fifth- and sixth-grade teaching position, which could have pushed the number of students per class in those grades to more than 30.

The vote followed a two-hour discussion about the proposed cuts and the need for an instructional support levy held between board members and roughly 20 parents, teachers and Carroll residents in attendance - rallied over the last week by school board member Jen Munson.

Munson - whose efforts began with only three emails - emphasized that her fight is not with Cordes, but with the specific cuts in his proposal that would increase class sizes in those younger grades. While a lecture-style high school class could accommodate 30, or even 35 students, those numbers simply don't work at the elementary and intermediate level, she said.

"My niche is, I'm an old classroom teacher," she said, recalling three or four years when she taught third-, fourth- or fifth-grade classes of 33 or 34 students.

"I had to teach to the middle and hope I pulled the low kids along and hope that I gave those excelling kids a little more to eat to extend their learning," she said.

Munson said that she could not guarantee that she taught all of the concepts and standards required by the state each year, not because she was a poor teacher, but because she did not have time to work with so many individual students. Today, there are even more learning styles and behavioral issues that teachers are expected to address in their classroom, she added.

"I don't want our kids to go through that - not just my kids, but kids in general," Munson said. "It scares me to see numbers this large because I fear that we're going to lose some kids through the cracks."

The reduction of the two positions was projected to save the district about $144,000, based on the salary and benefits packages of the two teachers who retired. Hiring two new teachers for those positions will cost between $80,000 and $90,000, said Cordes - still saving the district about $55,000.

SOONER OR LATER

The necessity of budget reductions - to the tune of nearly $500,000 for the 2014-15 school year - has been a recurring topic at board meetings since last fall.

During Wednesday night's special board meeting, business manager Gary Bengtson said that the district is actually on par to end the current year with expenditures exceeding revenue by $800,000. Coupled with the roughly $500,000 increase in salary packages next year - a 3.95 percent total package increase for teachers and a 3.26 percent package increase for non-bargaining employees such as secretaries, supervisors, custodians and administrators, were also approved Wednesday night - the cuts needed in order to avoid dipping into the district's "savings" next year actually amount to about $1.3 million, said Cordes.

Though this year will be the first that expenditures exceed revenues, the deficit was not unexpected. Over the last three years, revenue has increased by 0.84 percent while expenses increased by 2.17 percent.

"The revenue side is killing us," Bengtson said.

The state of Iowa sets maximum per-pupil spending for all districts - an amount that is $1,600 below the national average. Coupled with a decade of declining enrollment, school districts have less money available each year for classroom instruction - distinct from funds that support construction or technology purchases - and nearly 80 percent of which is spent on salaries, which continue to rise year after year.

Additionally, the state changed its requirements this year for districts operating a cash reserve levy - a funding source that has helped fill the gap between general-fund revenue and expenditures in past years, but is not available to the Carroll district this year.

The Carroll district is also one of only nine in the state that does not have an instructional support levy, rejected by voters in 2006 and 2008. If in place, the measure could generate up to $900,000 with a less than $1 increase to the area's lowest property tax rate in decades, said Cordes.

INSTRUCTIONAL SUPPORT LEVY

But in 2008, only 2 percent of Fairview Elementary parents, 4 percent of Adams Elementary parents, 8 percent of middle school parents and 20 percent of high school parents voted on the levy, according to statistics provided by board member LaVern Dirkx.

"We had no internal support," he said.

Cordes advised to board not to broach the issue again until people were "pounding their fists" on the board table.

On Wednesday, those people arrived.

"You don't want to be penny-wise and pound-foolish," said John Munson, echoing encouragement of the board to show faith in the attendees' support for a new parent-led levy campaign by holding off on cutting the two positions that would increase the fifth- and sixth-grade class sizes. John Munson is board member Jen Munson's husband.

Much has changed in six years, agreed Anne Collison - her children were just starting school in 2008, but she is more involved now - and the rise of social media has opened up paths of communication not available to the board during its last campaign.

"We're new blood," she said.

Board president Kim Tiefenthaler remained reluctant, reminding the board that no early-retirement incentives will be offered next year - part of the stipulations of this year's hefty incentives that led 13 educators to retire early, reducing the need for layoffs and program cuts. If the instructional support levy fails again, the cuts made next year will be much worse, he said.

But the optimism of the parents and community members prevailed.

"I'm willing to take a gamble on these people being passionate," said board member Dirkx as he made the final motion.