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Tough choices: JPS task force looking at ways to save money

Some difficult financial decisions down the road laid heavy undertones at the Jamestown Public School Board meeting on Monday night. Earlier that day the School Board’s financial task force met to discuss possible options to reduce deficit spending as the school faces a projected $800,000 budget shortfall this year and an estimated $1.8 million deficit in 2015.

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Nellie Degen, representing the Jamestown Parent Awareness/Prevention Center, an advocacy group for parents of students in Jamestown Public Schools, addressed the need for funding for a paid PAPC position in the district and presented a 60-page report on the volunteer group. No official action was taken on the matter, but the meeting opened with three speakers from the community — Elaine Kuske, Kayla Eslinger and Sheila Ova – explaining the importance of the parents’ center in their children’s lives.

Robert LechKuske said her daughter was bullied relentlessly which led to a suicide attempt. Dissatisfied with the school’s response to the bullying, Kuske turned to the parents’ center for help.

“It is essential that the parents’ center be open as an option for families,” Kuske said. “Teachers need to be held accountable for their actions as well as the school system needs to see that each child is treated fairly and given the education that they deserve. We all pay taxes to support the system, surely they can find a way to fund this position.”

In Superintendent Robert Lech’s report to the board, he recognized the value of the PAPC, but said great caution should be exercised with any personnel decisions with a budget deficit the magnitude of which JPS is facing. Also, he said the biggest value of the PAPC is as a parents’ advocacy group whose effectiveness could be threatened if it was brought under the school district’s payroll.

“I strongly believe that if the center became a part of the school district, it would lose that advocacy perspective because school staff are already working with parents,” Lech said in his report. “If funded by the district, I would envision the center being viewed as another step in the chain of command. It is my opinion that any advocacy group must exist outside the umbrella of the school.”

Task force discussion

The board will vote on the position at a future meeting following a retreat to address the financial task force report. The task force — consisting of Lech, School Board members Greg Allen, Gail Martin and Terry Anderson and school business manager Sally Ost, who was absent from the task force’s meeting at noon on Monday —addressed several ideas for spending cuts in the near future. Lech said he didn’t recommend some of the ideas he presented, but wanted the board to be aware of what difficult decisions lie ahead.

“What I don’t want to have happen is to incite a riot,” he said at the task force meeting. “Sometimes when people hear, ‘We’re having a discussion over doing something,’ that becomes ‘We are doing something,’ … When I say it’s a possibility, that doesn’t mean that’s where we are going.”

A few of the options the task force discussed was decreasing the amount spent on supplies which would save the district $50,000, increase the use of interactive TV from one to five classes which would net about $22,000 and raising the bus service fee from $20 a month to $30 a month bringing in $15,000 a year.

With staff salaries and benefits making up 80 percent of the school district’s budget, Lech said staff turnover through retirement and attrition could bring in $200,000 in savings by offering lower salaries or not filling vacant positions.

“That’s our reality: We have some very difficult discussions ahead of us,” Lech said at the School Board meeting, “Just be prepared for those difficult discussions; the only way we’re going to be effective in looking at this problem is to put everything out on the table and just talking about things and what exists. It’s my hope that as we go through this process our staff and our community will understand that we did do a very comprehensive look and anything we do we will have felt that is was the right choice to make.”

School Board actions

On Monday the School Board also approved five letters of resignation, a one-year leave of absence, set March 13 as the make-up day for a school cancellation due to extreme cold, and approved the first reading of the school’s new maternity and paternity policy.

Lech also announced that the Talented and Gifted pilot program collaboration with St. John’s Academy would not continue into the next school year, but hopes the program can be revisited in the future. JPS had voted to undergo the experiment with Jamestown’s only private elementary school under provisions that no JPS students would be shortchanged by allowing SJA students into the program, and that SJA would come up with a pro-rata cost-sharing agreement to fund it. Lech said he expects an increase from 76 public school students to 90 which is about the maximum number of students the TAG teachers can presently service each year.

“Unfortunately the program was effective. It really was a benefit to St. John’s and I think it has potential from a cost-sharing standpoint, but we have to first look at Jamestown Public Schools first,” Lech said after the meeting.

Sun reporter David Luessen can be reached at 701-952-8455 or by email at dluessen@jamestownsun.com

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