Teacher cuts decimate state education

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Budget cuts are forcing school districts statewide to lay off up to 15 percent of their teachers.

The worst cuts come in Brainerd where 67 teachers, or 15 percent of the district’s faculty, will be laid off at the end of the school year.

Brainerd isn’t alone. A survey by Minnesota 2020 found districts in every corner of the state affected: Grand Meadow will lose 14 percent of its teachers; Osseo and Robbinsdale, 12 percent; Forest Lake, North Branch, and La Crescent, 10 percent; Cambridge-Isanti, 8 percent; Willmar and Richfield, 7 percent.State education experts say the minimum teacher-to-student ratio is 19 to one. West St. Paul’s ratio will go past 30-to-one next year, as will Brainerd’s. La Crescent and North Branch will raise class sizes into the high 20s.

In November, voters in West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan renewed an existing levy but turned down a budget increase. Even after cutting 6 percent of teachers this year, the district faces $1.5 million in cuts next year.

Home foreclosures, a slumping construction industry and rising gas prices have soured North Branch voters on school levy increases. The district ran levy elections four years in a row and lost by growing margins. Despite a projected budget shortfall of nearly $3 million, the district will not ask voters for a budget increase in November. “People say to me, ‘What part of “No” don’t you understand’?” Superintendent Randi Johnson said.

North Branch and West St. Paul will make up for cuts by adding three to five students per class. Class sizes in La Crescent-Hokah will go up and electives will be dropped. In Brainerd, the first casualty will be the focus on the needs of the students. “The performance efforts – all those things are gone,” Superintendent Jerry Walseth said.

While declining enrollment causes cuts in some districts, that isn’t the case in all.

Since 2003, Brainerd’s enrollment hasn’t changed, but number of special education students has jumped. These students now make up 13 percent of the district’s student population. While state and federal lawmakers have promised to pay most special education costs, they rarely fund more than 40 percent and push the rest onto school districts.

Walseth reflected on what a lower quality of education means for Minnesotans: A poorly educated workforce means a worse business climate.

“We’ll be paying for this for a long time,” he said.

Walseth is right. An economy in which we deliver pizzas to one another is unacceptable. For a vibrant, robust economy, we need a vibrant, robust education system. One important cog in such a system is class size – the more individual time for students, the higher the quality of education. Sadly, the state’s refusal to help districts in financial need has driven class sizes up: 30 to one in Brainerd and West St. Paul, in the high twenties in La Crescent and North Branch.

Students in these districts are not getting even a minimum education. They won’t graduate workers who can help the economy. They won’t produce enough graduates who go on to college, earn degrees and attract high-tech businesses.

We’ll be paying for this for a long time indeed.