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It wasn't until mid-June that state Rep. Mindy Greiling (DFL-Roseville) really understood the impact of underfunding state school districts. For years she has been lobbying for education reform, reworking numbers, charts, and data to bring more money to the districts. She knew that legislation would have to be written and the public would have to be convinced. It would take a complete overhaul of the state's education system. It would take a long time.
But after a June 16 committee meeting with administrators of the state's rural districts in Brainerd, the suburban congresswoman decided to put school reform on the fast track. "There were parents crying about what was happening at their schools," Greiling recalls. "People advocate for education a lot, but to have people actually in tears, we don't see that so often. It's obviously very dire times."
For the last dozen years state education funding hasn't kept up with inflation, and that's dramatically affecting the state's rural schools, she says. "Small schools are the canaries in the mine. When you don't fund them they die right away."
With declining enrollments, competition from charter schools, and increased expectations from unfunded federal mandates like No Child Left Behind, all schools are hurting, says Sam Walseth, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Rural Education Association, but rural districts have been hit especially hard. "It really is the perfect storm in education right now," he says.
Most rural districts are graduating more students than they are enrolling because of the declining and aging population in outstate areas. Because Minnesota funds schools on a per-pupil basis, declining enrollments can affect small schools disproportionately. Losing five or ten kids can mean losing a significant percentage of the budget, Walseth says. Schools still have to heat the buildings; they still have to staff the school. And rural schools often have higher transportation costs. "Six kids could equal a bus and a teacher. That's how administrators are forced to think about it nowadays," he says.
Minnesota's funding system pressures administrators to compete for kids, says Loy Woelber, superintendent for Westbrook-Walnut Grove Public Schools, some 160 miles southwest of the Twin Cities. "If the neighboring school has all-day kindergarten, you better figure out a way to do it, even if your district can't afford it. You have to give it the best you can so you don't lose more kids."
Last year Westbrook-Walnut Grove Public Schools had 600 students, but enrollment is expected to drop by 50 students for the 2008-09 school year and continue to decline. "We're going to lose 100 kids in the next nine years," says Woelber. "We're already cutting, and we're going to need to almost double what we already have."
To stay afloat, Woelber has made full-time positions into part-time ones by sharing the school counselor and the English as a Second Language teacher with nearby districts. He has started renting out rooms at the school and doubles as a bus driver and coach. He also took a second job serving as the superintendent one day a week at nearby Balaton Public School, a tiny K-6 building struggling to stay open.
"I've done a lot of wheeling and dealing, and that helps a lot, but there are only so many people that I can share before I finally have to cut somebody," Woelber says.
He's not the only one trying to be creative. The MACCRAY School District in west central Minnesota plans to go to a four-day week for the 2008-09 school year. Students from Maynard, Clara City, and Raymond will go to school fewer days for longer hours: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. The four-day week is expected to save the district up to $95,000, a large chunk of that from transportation, heating, and electric bills, says Doug Runia, principal at MACCRAY East Elementary. "It's a way to save on costs without drastically cutting programs or staff."
While innovation is good, solutions like that can be fraught with problems, says Walseth, who isn't so sure the four-day week will work. For example, he says, what are parents who work going to do with their kids every Monday?
Most schools have already made drastic cost cuts, Walseth says. They have eliminated elective classes such as music, gym, and foreign languages. They have started charging for extracurricular sports and activities, and many are downsizing academic programs such as English and science.
"We're to the point now where education is just kids sitting in the classroom with a teacher," he says. "There are not that many more creative things schools can do. They aren't Wal-Mart. They are an educational system. They have to meet standards."
In the past five to ten years, rural districts have been forced to turn to voters for help more than ever, says Lee Warne, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association. A large portion of school funding comes from local bond measures and levy initiatives garnered through property taxes. But asking people to increase taxes to keep the schools running is hard enough in rural areas where agricultural land is already heavily taxed and the aging population has little connection to the school, he says. Asking people for more money during a recession, when the housing market is in crisis and energy costs and gas prices are skyrocketing, is nearly impossible.