The school finances chokehold that state policymakers have over Minnesota’s school districts has forced another school to choose between a rock and a hard place.
In a stunning example of what is wrong with education priorities in Minnesota, state underfunding forced the Crosby-Ironton School District to eliminate its athletic and extracurricular activities for the 2008-09 school year to save $250,000.
The team that placed second in the Class 2A boys state basketball tournament in March? Gone. Football, baseball, track, wrestling, dance line? All gone to save money.
It’s no secret that team activities – whether on the field, the stage, or in the classroom – teach cooperation and interdependence and improve physical and mental development. Sports also are an important component of community pride.
Most important is the hidden economic benefit extracurricular activities bring to taxpayers. Students who participate in extracurricular activities develop pride in themselves and ownership in their school, making them less likely to drop out. Research shows that dropouts are often underemployed, pay less in taxes and use welfare and Medicaid more than graduates. One study showed each dropout costs Minnesotans $1.1 million in taxpayer dollars over a lifetime.
Minnesota’s policy of financially starving schools seems counterintuitive to these facts. State aid to Crosby-Ironton has dropped an inflation-adjusted 9 percent since 2003. Enrollment changes have caused some of this decline, but state underfunding has contributed to the bulk of the deficit.
Educators were faced with cutting $750,000 from this year’s budget. A special education teacher and several other staff were eliminated, but years of cuts have left little room to maneuver. For Crosby-Ironton, the choice came down to athletics or academics. After the failure of a levy initiative in November, the school board chose academics.
The athletic program was dead until parents and community members raised money to revive the program for one year. They held raffles, auctions, a golf tournament, a beer and wine tasting fundraiser; they even sent letters to alumni begging for money. These fundraisers brought in about $125,000. To make up the remainder, the district jacked activity fees up from $150 to $250 for each student for each sport.
While Crosby-Ironton’s parents are glad to have athletics back for one year, they are sad the state has abandoned their school.
Mary Kuhlman’s son is a senior at Crosby-Ironton High School and plays basketball and baseball. Her two younger sons play football. She’s facing a $1,000 bill just so her children can participate in school athletics.
“This is very sad,” Kuhlman said, but she understands that her district is not unique. “We’re not going to be the only school district facing this situation in the next couple of years if state funding for schools doesn’t change.”
Local property tax levies make up 18 percent of the district’s budget. The district has gone to voters for levy increases nearly every year since 1999. Last year’s question – which would have brought in $808,086 annually to maintain academic and extracurricular activities – failed. Some blame the loss on retirees who have few ties to local education. Poverty was also an issue: Crosby-Ironton High School Principal Jim Christenson said more than 43 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
The school board Monday voted to run a levy election again in November. They will set an amount in late August. If the levy attempt fails, the district will be forced to cut $1.3 million next year.
While some Crosby-Ironton officials look hopefully to St. Paul for financial help in the next legislative session, they remain somewhat realistic: “There are a lot of odds against us but I believe in miracles,” board chair Bob Sandin was quoted in the Brainerd Dispatch. “It’s not a good time (to ask voters to raise taxes) but is there ever a good time? … We need a miracle from the state.”
“I know the state isn’t rolling in money, but how long can we keep this up?” Christensen asked. “What do we do next year? Do we cut a chemistry teacher? Do we cut a shop teacher who will teach good, hands-on skills that a student will take to a technical college and use to learn a career and become a good, taxpaying citizen? Are we going to say they don’t have that opportunity any more?”
Since the 2003-04 school year, 15 teachers have been cut from grades 7-12. “Most of these teaching positions were cut from the elective areas but there were also English, math, science, and social studies teachers,” Christensen said. Two principals and a counselor have been cut, as have secretaries, cooks, custodians and teaching assistants.
“Schools can’t continue to operate like this,” he said.
State underinvestment forces schools to do what they can just to keep their heads above water. State policymakers should be looking at how to improve educational opportunities, not just the bare minimum to save them.