Schools brace for devastating budget cuts

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Minnesota schools continue to be financially crushed well beyond the current economic crisis. After years of state neglect, schools are shedding teachers and programs at an alarming rate.

Consider these planned cuts for the 2009-10 school year:

These cuts come as no surprise. The state has been cutting back on education investment for years, leaving overburdened property taxpayers to make up the difference. From 2003 to 2009, state aid to school districts fell by 13.9 percent. In response, school districts reluctantly asked for property tax increases of an average of 122 percent. Because the real per pupil levy increase is smaller than the aid reduction, total school district operating revenue has fallen 5.2 percent over the last six years.

Consider the small Westbrook-Walnut Grove school district. Because of state underfunding, it receives 5.7 percent less per student less than it did in 2003. The result is years of cutbacks

For the 2009-10 school year, the district is looking to shave $230,000 from its budget by sharing superintendent duties with another district, cutting two full time employees from the business office, cutting one K-6 teacher and one 7-12 teacher, cutting cross country coaches, partially cutting special education, music, and community education positions, and cutting three paraprofessionals.

Consider the growing Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose school district. It has seen a per-student drop in income of nearly 7 percent since 2003.

The Jan. 26 school board meeting was packed with parents and students who didn’t want the district to go ahead with planned cuts to activities such as swimming, speech and dance team as well as eliminating almost every middle school sport. The high school is also planning a 25 percent increase in its three-tiered athletic fee structure to $155, $120 and $85 in the 2009-10 school year.

It’s part of Buffalo’s plan to cut $1.6 million from its budget. It will cut 1.5 administrative positions, 11.5 teaching positions, 2 gifted and talented positions, 6.5 paraprofessionals, two custodians as well as eliminate summer school, eliminate after-school busing, increase walking distance to schools and increase cuts to supplies and materials by 15 percent.

Board member Patti Pokorney told the parents that the board worked under the idea that students who participate in activities do better in school and become better citizens. Raising fees means some would be able to participate and others would not, creating a system of haves and have-nots. She wondered if raising fees means abandoning this policy.

Pokorney also mentioned that the most drastic cuts would take place not on the field but in the classroom. “Where are the parents who are saying they will raise $50,000 to keep a teacher in the classroom?” she asked.

Reached this week, Superintendent Jim Bauck admitted that there were some income increases — school income increased by the 1 percent cost-of-living increase offered by the Legislature in 2007, as well as the two $51-per-student one-time increases offered by the Legislature in 2008. Even so, “When your costs go up X dollars and your income is up only Y percent …”

The district capped staff in 2007-08 and cut $1.8 million last year. Bauck is anxiously watching state and national developments to see if the $1.6 million in cuts planned this year will change.

Class sizes are rising precipitously, he said. “If we had not capped our staff in 07-08, we could have added four new elementary teachers. Last year we could have added six more but didn’t, so right there you’ve got a dozen fewer teachers to keep class sizes low in the elementary schools.”

Buffalo is a growing community, but Bauck doesn’t rule out closing a school. Cutting teachers and raising class sizes leads to empty rooms, “and if you have a lot of empty rooms, you might as well mothball a school,” he said.

Mothballing a school in a growing district like Buffalo shouldn’t be an option, nor should cutting teachers or raising class sizes. A state that cares about education will give its educators the means necessary to achieve their goals. Anything less is simply unacceptable.

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