Survey: rural Minnesota schools feel the budget pain


A recent survey of rural Minnesota school districts finds them bearing the brunt of state education underinvestment.

In March, Minnesota 2020 partnered with the Minnesota Association of School Administrators to survey school districts about their plans to lay off licensed teachers, administrators and non-licensed staff in response to dwindling finances. The districts reported that on average they plan to lay off 4 percent of their faculty, 5 percent of administration and 6.5 percent of non-licensed staff to make ends meet.

About 80 rural school district superintendents responded to the e-mail survey. They were granted anonymity in exchange for their candid responses.

“This is the largest employee layoff in any one year in our school district’s history! All subject areas, elementary principal and transportation/census director, custodial, special education paraprofessionals, secretarial and technology positions are all lost,” one superintendent replied.

“This is, by far, the most difficult financial situation this district has faced in the last 16 years, and probably the most difficult since the mid 1980’s. If the legislature reduces state aid to schools the result will be devastating to this district,” wrote another.

School funding has indeed gone down. Research by Minnesota 2020 reveals that state education aid to schools has dropped 13 percent since the state took over school funding in 2003.

In fact, two of the districts facing the biggest cuts – Milaca and Owatonna – have faced major drops in state funding since 2003.

Milaca plans on cutting eight of its 129 teachers as well as making cuts to its administration.

In Owatonna, 21 of its 330 teachers will lose their jobs this year, as will an administrator and 15 non-licensed employees.

Most superintendents registered a feeling of doom about their prospects.

“Declining enrollment and inadequate state aid is forcing us to make cuts that hurt the quality of education. We need to pass a new referendum just to keep what we have.”

“These cuts assume that the process of closing a building is successful for the fall of 2009. In the event that the closure is unsuccessful, additional cuts will be made.”

“None of the seven employees that are cut this year will be hired back. The only reason we aren’t cutting even more positions is because we have a good fund balance for one year. If you give this survey again next year at this time, and the funding issues aren’t fixed at the state by then, we will be cutting 10 more FTEs.”

“My district was on the verge of going into statutory operating deficit at the end of 2007-08. It now has some breathing room (but still is not healthy financially) due to $200,000 in cuts made over 2007-08 and 2008-09. Our district is struggling to provide just a basic education.”

“Trying to hold the line on personnel cuts, we have ‘leaned out’ over the past five years and have also replaced 14 retiring teachers.”

Staff cuts are problematic for every school, but are especially devastating for rural districts. While large districts can transfer staff to different buildings to take up the slack from cuts, districts with few buildings can only hope to hire teachers and staff with multiple certifications and abilities.

When teachers are cut, class size suffers. When class sizes grow too large, the quality of the education a student receives drops. A report commissioned in 2003 by Gov. Tim Pawlenty recommended no more than 16 students in elementary school classrooms, 19 students in middle school classes, and 26 students per class on average in high school, depending on the hands-on requirements of the class. But because of cuts in state aid since 2003, classes throughout the state at all grade levels routinely top 30 students per class and some come near 40 students per class.

One superintendent bemoaned what he called Minnesota’s slide toward second-class status. He said his district’s students are receiving a worse education today than they were in 2003 because of teacher cuts brought on by underfunding.

Today, state policy makers are calling to hold state education investments “harmless,” meaning they’ll absorb inflation increases as long as they don’t lose money coming from the state. We can only assume they believe this to be a responsible position of compromise.

But the only people being compromised in this plan are the students of Minnesota. Without the opportunity a high-quality education opens up, their chances of future success will drop. They will be underemployed. Those with enough talent to leave Minnesota will do so. Those who stay will face fewer choices and fewer opportunities.

Minnesotans can do the same math as these superintendents: Fewer dollars put into the education system leads to a worse education system, and a worse education system leads to a lower standard of living in Minnesota. Just listen to the state’s school superintendents; they’ll tell you everything you want to know if you simply ask.

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