The Hutchinson School Board temporarily laid off 51 positions Monday evening. The majority — 36 — were coaches and advisors for spring activities canceled due to state mandate in response to COVID-19.
Overall, the layoffs are expected to save the district an estimated $200,000.
"Because of budget constraints and the COVID-19 pandemic, the School Board has determined that it must temporarily lay off employees who hold positions that do not have a dedicated funding source," the resolution states, "including, but not limited to, positions that are supported by fees."
Hutchinson Public Schools Superintendent Daron VanderHeiden said that none of the employees, including coaches, would have to reapply or be interviewed again for their positions. The school intends to bring them back when it is able to based on guidance from the Minnesota Department of Education and the governor's office.
"It may not be all at the same time," VanderHeiden said.
Most of the employees that were laid off held part-time positions, but some — such as two custodians and a media technician — were full-time positions. About half of the 15 non-coach layoffs were employees who stepped forward when the district asked if there were any volunteers. Not all positions related to spring activities were cut. Some activities such as FFA and yearbook are ongoing and were not subject to a canceled season.
The decision was made unanimously by the board, but not before reading two letters opposing the action at the beginning of the meeting, and later discussing them.
Scott Renning, head baseball coach, wrote a letter to the board on behalf of spring head coaches and activity advisors. In it, he says coaches who are laid off are unsure if they can communicate with students, and what liability that would bring. He also raised concerns about the stability of coaching positions in the future, as the term "termination" was used in the official notice employees received. He said there hadn't been sufficient communication from the district office.
"Our student athletes need us now more than ever to navigate these life situations," he wrote. "The mental health of our kids during this horrible time could be addressed even more then normal by coaches and advisors."
Hutchinson High School Principal Rob Danneker said the district decided not to have coaches provide individual exercise routines for students in lieu of regular practice and events, but that coaches were encouraged to act as mentors to students in the meantime.
"(Coaches are) connecting to (athletes) as students, as human beings, reaching out to them … to make sure they are staying connected, that their mental health, social well-being, all that stuff is being checked on,” said Activities Director Thayne Johnson. “That's certainly the norm here in Hutchinson."
"The (Minnesota State High School League) itself does not prohibit contact with coaches and students anywhere throughout the year other than what they call their black out periods, or no contact periods," Danneker said. "Because of the current situation we are in, the high school league has amended bylaw 208 to narrow that period this summer to three days."
Regarding the word "termination,” VanderHeiden said that was used based on legal guidance to follow state requirements, but supervisors told employees the layoffs were temporary.
"In my mind there is a huge difference between a layoff and a termination," said Board Member JoEllen Kimball.
She speculated that working from home and distance learning had resulted in a lack of communication.
"I agree the word ‘termination’ has a different feel than a temporary layoff," VanderHeiden said.
One position cut was an Early Childhood Family Education teacher. Another cut was for a community education coordinator. Kimball noted that both programs will return, and custodians will be needed in the future as they have been in the past.
"As soon as those programs are being brought back online, we can get those organized and back in business," VanderHeiden said. "We will certainly bring any and all of those employees back."
In another letter to the School Board, Education Hutchinson President CariAnn Squier said the layoffs were not necessary.
She noted the school had $1.7 million more in revenues than expenditures and a fund balance of $13 million. She highlighted budget revisions reviewed by the School Board earlier this year that showed the district had underestimated its revenue by a few hundred thousand dollars.
"Where is that extra revenue?" she asked in her letter. "If it is not being used to help with the budget constraints, then it should be."
Hutchinson Public Schools Director of Business and Finance Becky Boll was asked to address the financial questions.
She started by addressing the school's $1.7 million in revenues over expenditures. The local and national economic forecast, Boll said, is on track with what was seen during the Great Recession.
"We have some crises we need to work through right now, but what we learned back then was that the ... impacts of these types of economic backdrops that we're operating in, it lasts for multiple years," she said.
While the district did see a $1.7 million in revenues over expenditures in a recent review, not all of that money is available for the school to use as it likes. The state restricts many school funds. As a result, the school has local control of $556,000 of those revenues.
As for the unexpected revenues the school saw last month, Boll said it was a result of enrollment coming in higher than expected despite continuing to trend down. She also noted the story changed since March and the start of the pandemic.
When work ended for the weekend on March 13, the school had one set of budget revisions. Then on that Sunday, March 15, the school was given a new sense of what the COVID-19 pandemic would mean for schools in Minnesota when they were temporarily closed and educators were told to prepare for a long period of distance learning. The state went on to mandate schools provide meals for students and day care services for essential employees, services that needed to be funded locally. Meanwhile, schools were no longer collecting fees for lunch services and a la cart sales, as well as fees for other programs. Ultimately, fees for spring activities were either not collected or returned.
Regarding the school's $13 million fund balance, Boll said the school had local control of $9 million, which she thinks of as “a savings account” used for cash flow.
"We have the 20 percent on hand we need to pay our bills and payroll for three months time," she said.
But also accounted for in that fund balance is money to fulfill a School Board policy requiring the school have money on hand to handle other emergency situations.
"Last week during a press conference, Gov. (Tim) Walz alluded to, for the first time in a very long time, a lot of tools he has in his toolbox. One of them is the governor and the Legislature can shift aid and taxes from school districts. In layman terms, that means they could use us as a bank. We've lived through that as public schools back starting in 2010, ’11 and ’12."
If the state decides to hold or shift aid, the school would need cash on hand to pay its bills, or borrow money.
"It's in the district's best interest to make sure that it has enough funds on hand should the state decide to use one of those tools coming up within the next year," Boll said, "so that we don't have to secure a line of credit or aid anticipation certificates."
She said doing so would ultimately take money from education purposes.
Kamrath asked Boll if it was accurate to say the funds the school had available sounded like a lot, but could be easily consumed within the school's overall budget. Boll said that was correct.