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Carrie Thomas, right, an English Language Learner teacher, works with third-grade students Ridwan Dahir, from left, Rebecca Holstrom and Stephanie Lopez during a math period last February in Courtney Hauge's room at Kennedy Elementary School in Willmar. The teachers were participating in a pilot project that keeps ELL students in the classroom during math. Tribune file photo by Ron Adams

Willmar board poised to save kindergarten program, some teaching positions

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news Willmar, 56201
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR -- More than a dozen teaching jobs could be saved for next year if the Willmar School Board adopts the budget reduction list discussed Monday.

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At the board's work session meeting Monday, Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard presented a list of items to be removed from the $2.5 million worth of cuts initially proposed.

The board is now aiming for a budget reduction of $1.7 million from the general fund and using $255,000 from reserve funds to cut a total of about $2 million in expenses from the general fund budget for the 2010-11 school year.

A final decision on the budget cuts is expected at the March 8 board meeting.

The largest item on the bring-back list was all-day, everyday kindergarten. The board had previously discussed maintaining full-time kindergarten classes for at least one more year. That would save 7.5 full-time teaching jobs.

Other items that might be saved include two full-time-equivalent jobs in the elementary schools, two FTE at the Middle School and 0.66 FTE at the Senior High. One English Language Learner position may also be saved, but another could still be cut.

Even with those items off the list, the budget reductions still include a long list of job cuts, reduced work hours for some employees, program changes and fee increases.

During an hour-long discussion, board members asked questions about each of the proposed changes.

A particular concern was ELL instruction. Saving one ELL job should help the elementary and middle school programs continue their collaborative teaching. The plan brings ELL teachers into regular classrooms during math and reading classes, rather than having ELL students leave for individual instruction.

Beckie Simenson, director of alternative and title programs for the district, said preliminary data shows that students are making strides in both subjects with the new program. While no method works best for everyone, she said, the collaboration seems to be working better than previous methods.

ELL programs have been challenged this year by a loss of some funding from the West Central Integration Collaborative, affecting programs for newcomers. Pam Harrington, director of business and finance, said the state has put more restrictions on the funding than in the past.

Kjergaard said there is a move in the Legislature to do away with integration collaboratives in the state. "We may want to do some lobbying," he said, because losing the WCIC and the assistance it gives schools in the area would be a blow.

Board member Dion Warne, who recently visited a collaborative classroom, said he liked the program and hoped it would help children learn English. "I'm concerned," he said. "We don't want anyone left on the sidelines."

Adding back two FTE at the Middle School could preserve the school's flexible schedule, which provides extended math or reading/communications classes on alternate days.

However, Kjergaard said he would send a memo to Middle School Principal Mark Miley and to Senior High Principal Rob Anderson directing them to begin planning alternate schedules for their schools.

"We're going to be back here next February," Kjergaard said, and the administrators need to be prepared.

Kjergaard said the administrative team would meet again before the next board meeting to go over the proposals, but he didn't expect any major changes in the list.

The board had opened the meeting for public comments, and three people spoke.

Forrest Peterson of Willmar asked the board to reconsider cutting a paraprofessional position that helps prepare science class materials for elementary students.

Andrea Otto, an elementary teacher, said she was concerned about class sizes increasing because of the cuts, making it harder for teachers to give students the individual attention they need. "Each one of our students deserve the best we can give them," she said.

Kathy Horning, an elementary music teacher, asked them to reconsider some cuts to elementary band, choir and orchestra, saying cutting them "will be cutting the legs off our program."

The board did not directly address those concerns during the discussion.

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