Since 2003, state funding for K-12 education in Minnesota has dropped an inflation-adjusted 13 percent. While the current economic crisis is keeping inflation in check, Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s pledge to “hold education harmless” while deciding how the state’s money will be spent amounts to nothing more than another budget cut for Minnesota schools.
The signs are everywhere across the state and range from bad situations to worse situations.
Litchfield Public Schools is in statutory operating debt and between this year and next year will cut $700,000 from its budget. This includes cutting four teachers, not buying textbooks, reducing supplies and substitute staff, cutting a bus route and increasing activity fees. This means Litchfield students will have more students in each classroom, fewer class choices, out-of-date textbooks and it will be harder to get to school and will cost more to take part in school activities.
Here’s the kicker: Litchfield considers itself lucky. Voters approved a levy increase in May. With the levy, an additional $518,000 in cuts won’t have to be made in the 2010-11 school year, said district superintendent Bill Wold. That should be enough to get the district out of SOD and to a balanced budget.
It’s a bad situation, but not as bad as it could be, Wold said. If voters had not approved the levy, the district was prepared to cut five more teachers, cut the agriculture program and marching band program, and cut all busing in the city of Litchfield.
Wold said he has become a professional fund-raiser and job-cutter. “You step back and say ‘why do we have to run schools like this?’ We started the school year working on a referendum (which failed in November), then worked on these budget cuts, then worked on another referendum (which passed in May). The Minnesota Department of Education told us to expect funding to be flat for the next three years. I don’t know how people expect districts to run like that.”
Remember, Litchfield is a “winner” in this game.
The Pelican Rapids school district lost a levy referendum by 144 votes last November. Pelican Rapids superintendent Deb Wanek said the district has cut $1.5 million over the last several years. Next year, the district is cutting $600,000 in programs and staff: Industrial arts was cut last year and German is gone after this school year, while art, math and English options are leaving as well. All day every day kindergarten will be reduced to a half-day program unless a community group can come up with the $100,000 it pledged to keep the program alive.
Wanek said her district has been hit hard by laws allowing recreational homeowners to avoid paying school taxes. She said her district receives $1,100 per student less than the state average in state aid.
“Even the governor’s flat budget (for schools) is a cut for us,” she said. The one-time money offered by the state last year is gone, while the district is facing declining enrollment and open enrollment.
“And we’re already $1,100 lower than average. Just get us back to average, that’s all we ask,” she said.
Norman County East officials approved $60,000 in cuts in May following $30,000 earlier this year. The cuts involve leaving a position unfilled, cutting staff development and reducing support staff.
Norman County East Superintendent Dean Krogstad said the school remains in SOD, with about $500,000 to cut. When the district made their plan to get out of SOD, they anticipated at least a 2 percent increase. “It’s terrible that’s not going to happen,” Krogstad said.
If the governor makes good on his plans to shift payments to the next fiscal year, districts like Norman County East will be hurting. “We don’t have that kind of money to cover,” Krogstad said. “We’ll have to borrow, which means we’ll have to pay back the interest.”
Two years ago, voters passed a $1,550 per student levy increase, “but even that won’t be enough,” Krogstad said.
“We’re not trimming any fat anymore. If we look at cutting, we’re cutting programs, not faculty,” he said.
It has come to this: Some districts like Litchfield can get a levy referendum approved and can then tread water. Some districts like Norman County East can get a levy referendum approved and still sink financially. And some districts like Pelican Rapids really have little hope of survival under the current financial circumstances.
Fewer teachers, fewer resources, fewer options. Like Wold said – is this any way to run a school system?
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