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SAGE up in air again as Ellsworth School Board hears changes

An update on changes in the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) program left the Ellsworth School Board Monday with a lot to consider about the program's future here.

Administration had recommended dropping the program, which aims to reduce class sizes in the early elementary grades, as part of budget cutting this spring. However, the board decided in April to retain it, at least for the coming school term, because of its educational value.

Since then, local enrollment has changed, Superintendent Barry Cain told the board Monday. Emphasizing enrollment numbers could change further, Cain said the latest figures show an increase of 11 students from the time of the April meeting. For SAGE, that would mean hiring an additional teacher for this fall, resulting in the school district having to cover an approximately $230,000 program cost, instead of the $170,000 cost projected in April.

Moreover, although a new state law increases the SAGE student-to-teacher ratio to be 18-to-one, rather than the previous 15-to-one, it no longer allows for waivers. Cain said local elementary enrollment is still close to levels where it may or may not meet SAGE requirements and the local district has relied on such waivers in the past. The new law wouldn't allow Ellsworth schools to continue to get the waiver they've had for grades two and three, as school officials had thought earlier.

With the understanding his presentation is for discussion only at this point, the superintendent advanced four options as of Monday:

--Keep on monitoring enrollment levels and staff needs to report back to the board next month (the district's currently enrolled in SAGE for next school year, but could choose to eliminate it in September).

--Commit to SAGE for the 2010-11 school year and adjust staffing levels as information becomes available.

--Phase out SAGE over two years by reducing to one SAGE school for '10-'11 (Cain later confirmed for the board once one school is out, regulations would prevent it from returning to the program in the future.)

--Reconsider the present commitment to SAGE, mindful moving away would result in increased class sizes while decreasing the need for additional staff.

School administrators have extensively pondered the possibilities, Cain said. He shared information demonstrating just how close the local district is to meeting, or failing to meet, the required 18-to-one ratio. From the administrators' examination, staff costs were projected based on how the district proceeds: $1,963,221 if SAGE is dropped for next year, $1,974,720 if SAGE is retained at both Hillcrest and Prairie View, or $1,825,055 if SAGE is dropped at Prairie View and kept at Hillcrest for '10-'11.

Complicating the issue is the fact Prairie View won't be eligible for Title I services due to an insufficient number of student families qualifying for free and reduced-price meals there, even while Hillcrest will be eligible for these services, the board was told. A SAGE requirement about comparability among the various schools in a district is a factor in this.

Prairie View personnel were in attendance as board members tried to assess all the ramifications of whatever the next move might be. At one point, Board Member Rick Kornmann wondered whether shifting all early elementary students to Hillcrest and all older elementary graders to Prairie View would be advantageous, a scenario Cain admitted hadn't been discussed.

The board wasn't expected to act on the matter (and didn't), going for now on the premise SAGE will stay in the local schools, depending on how enrollments end up by the official September count.

Read more in the print version of the Herald June 16.

Bill Kirk

Bill Kirk was editor of the Pierce County Herald in Ellsworth, from 1988 to February, 2015 and is now on staff as a reporter. He holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He previously worked in the media distribution department at the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus and is past editor of The Tri-County News in Osseo, Wisconsin.

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