OPINION | The road to ruin is paved with small humiliations


School decline is illuminated by small humiliations. Strung together, budget cuts’ program impacts create a dismal narrative. Persistent, on-going funding reductions force school boards deeper between a rock and a hard place; whatever was cut this year is simply grim prologue. The next budget cycle’s choices mean implementing cuts that, three or four years ago, were not only unthinkable, they were educational heresy in Minnesota. 

Humiliation is the by-product found in the decision of disallowing staff to attend a professional conference because of tight budgets. It’s choosing between eliminating a fall versus a spring sport when all are popular and well-enrolled. It’s the quiet reminder, delivered during the weekly teaching staff meeting, that the photocopier paper budget was exceeded in March with two and a half more months of school remaining and could everyone revisit their lesson plans to eliminate curricular handouts.

Since 2002, Minnesota has reduced investment in our children’s education by 14%. In the last several years, to balance Minnesota’s budget, elected state officials have delayed state payments to school districts, effectively creating greater education spending reductions and forcing additional financial hardships on Minnesota schools.

What is cast as a difficult state public policy decision by Governor Pawlenty and State Senate and House leaders becomes another series of small humiliations, spread across Minnesota’s educational landscape.

Toward the end of every week, I receive the Walnut Grove-Westbrook Sentinel-Tribune, my hometown weekly newspaper. The May 26, 2010 edition’s front page notes a small cities housing grant program’s availability, an ash tree fungus problem, Memorial Day observation schedules and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum’s spring open house. Buried almost in the back are the official school board minutes.

They are a lesson in small humiliations.

On April 19, the seven member WWG school board approved $140,400 in spending reductions for the school year. First, the board raised student activities fees by $1,500. Current enrollment is 491. Assuming about 291 are 7th-12th grade students, that’s about $5 per kid, except not every child participates in an activity. Even an extra $50 won’t remotely cover an activity’s real cost but it does represent a terrific small humiliation in an area with a median household income of $32,000.

The school is lowering the thermostat to 65 degrees from 68, expecting to save $5,000. A morning school bus route will be eliminated, saving another $5,000. That route’s students will be absorbed into existing routes, creating a longer bus ride for every student.

The Junior/Senior high school lunch room attendant’s position is being cut, saving $3,600. Existing staff, the ones being burdened with extra duties due to budget cuts, will presumably also have to divide up student lunchtime supervision.

The high school’s building equipment and supply budget is being cut $15,000. I expect luxury items such as mops, buckets, chalk, dryboard markers, test tubes, replacement screws, vacuum cleaner bags, fluorescent light tubes, the stuff that really rankles conservative public policymakers, won’t be missed much. The elementary school building in Walnut Grove will bear a $20,500 cut, but that number also includes the elementary library, a traditionally easy budget cutting target.

The school is cutting the FCCLA program, saving $2,500. FCCLA stands for Family, Career and Community Leaders of America and used to be called Future Homemakers of America. WWG FCCLA members recently won two gold and one bronze awards at the state competition. It’s hard to describe walking away from this tradition as anything less than humiliating.

In the same board minutes, building and grounds spending needs were discussed. They include $30,000 of roof work by the Walnut Grove kindergarten and science rooms; $100 for Westbrook building electrical panel repair; $50 for toilet repair; $250 for exterior door caulking; and another $5,000 for Westbrook building roof repairs. Total proposed spending is $83,000 but the board took no action. Members just talked about it.

Teaching staff budget reductions weren’t discussed. That’s another school board meeting’s major topic but given physical plant budget issues, I’m betting that staff cuts will further humiliate, and probably more deeply.

State Capitol grandstanding, given a little time and 160 miles, translates into a regular series of small humiliations. I may be studying the Westbrook Walnut Grove school board minutes but subscribers of every Minnesota weekly, daily and major metro will soon read their own versions of this humiliating story. It’s not a recipe for success.

We see, all too clearly, the consequences of disinvestment. Minnesota must choose between prosperity and decline. Our future is rooted in strong school funding. Unless we return to that standard, the next budget cycle’s small humiliations will grow larger and Minnesota’s school children will enter the workforce less prepared than the generation preceding them. That should be the ultimate humiliation.