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Garrow: Milton teachers will interview to keep jobs

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NEIL W. JOHNSON
March 20, 2012
— As the Milton School District plans to shore up a possible $1.3 million budget gap, it appears it won't be able to avoid laying off at least some of its teachers.

While the school board weighs a district staffing proposal that includes cutting as many as five classroom teachers at the K-6 level, the district plans to use an unusual method to determine which of the teachers could be cut: interviews.


Superintendent Mike Garrow said a panel of district administrators this week will interview nine first-year teachers—giving the teachers a chance to earn their jobs next year.


On Monday, Garrow explained the process.


"Basically, we'll conduct regular job-type interviews with each one of those individuals, using a uniform set of questions," he said. "As a team, we have to assess which individuals are staying, first, and which individuals based on those interviews would be recommended for preliminary notice of layoff."


Garrow said administrators will use the interviews to rank the teachers. As many as five of the nine would retain their jobs, while four likely would be tabbed for preliminary layoff notices, which the board could approve Monday.


The district is using the unorthodox review system because each of the teachers has the same level of professional certification and the same amount of seniority in the district. Both are factors to be considered under the rules of the district's teachers contract.


The teacher cuts would save about $325,000. They're part of a larger proposal for $941,000 in spending cuts through attrition of staff and reductions in other areas such as technology.


Michael Dorn, the president of the Milton Education Association, the district's teachers union, said the union doesn't relish the idea of teacher cuts, but it views the interviews "as a way to level the playing field and give everyone an equal opportunity to fight for their job."


"We're all hoping that the layoffs are a temporary thing," Dorn said.


Student enrollment for next year isn't yet known, although earlier district estimates predict enrollment will decrease slightly or stay flat.


Dorn estimated that if enrollments are flat, the proposed staff cuts could mean the average K-6 class size would increase by two or three students.


Garrow said all of the teachers that face cuts could be called back later if the budget outlook improves.


He said the district's still learning larger variables that could impact the budget, including whether the district has a few retirements or staff taking leave.


The district's health insurance costs also aren't known. Garrow said that each 1 percent increase in insurance expenses costs the district $48,000.


It's not clear how much the budget picture could brighten. The district last year was able to slash $1.7 million in spending, mostly through teacher retirements and union concessions to insurance and pension benefits. That allowed the district to lift itself partially out of a budget morass that opened up after state cuts to education came down as part of Gov. Scott Walker's austerity budget.


But savings won't come as readily this year. The district expects fewer retirements this year, Garrow indicated, and its budget woes are compounded because $500,000 in one-time federal jobs funding is running out.


It's left the district weighing proposed cuts which include the elimination of three positions—the dean of students at Milton Middle School, the dean of students at Milton High School and a shared instructional coach—and replacing them with two new positions—an instructional assistant principal at the high school and an instructional assistant principal at the middle school. That move's projected to save about $30,000, according to district estimates.


Yet even with the cuts, the district faces a remaining gap of $350,000.


In a proposal to the board last week, Garrow suggested the district could dip into the fund balance, the district's cash reserve, to cover some of the deficit.


That's something the board has been reluctant to do in recent years, even though the district has been able to add $1 million to its cash reserve over the last year, according to some district estimates.


One board member, Bob Cullen, recently floated the option of a referendum to exceed levy limits. Cullen, who is running for re-election, brought up the idea at a school board candidates forum last week.


Cullen and others at the forum also talked about closing Consolidated Elementary School at some point as a possible option to save money.


Neither of those ideas is being considered as a way to address budget cuts this spring, and neither is being looked at as a plan for the 2012-13 school year.


But Garrow said the district is examining how much it could save if it closed Consolidated Elementary. And he suggested that the district and the board later this year could begin to more seriously discuss that option and the possibility of a referendum.



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