No More Pencils, No More Books

Rural schools say chronic underfunding is leading them to desperate measures

"Many people feel that they don't have to pay for something they won't use, or financially they just can't afford it," says Mark Masten, business manager for the Fergus Falls School District, 177 miles northwest of the Twin Cities. After years of negotiating, Fergus Falls finally got a bond referendum passed for facilities this year, but Masten says they still had to cut $2.6 million out of the budget for the 2008-09 school year. That's on top of $1.8 million in cuts it made the last academic year.

Currently, Fergus Falls gets $415 per child from local property taxes. That's a relatively small amount, Masten says, but it's big dollars compared with neighboring schools. "The amounts being levied in the metro areas, we could only dream of them here," he says. "It is bleak for most public schools and has been for a while, but this is one of the tougher years I have seen. There's not much light at the end of the tunnel."

Take nearby Brainerd Public Schools. There, incoming superintendent Steve Razidlo says, future prospects for his award-winning district are dim. While enrollment has been steady, relying on referendums for financing hasn't worked. Voters denied the district an operating levy of $982 per student in November, forcing schools to continue operating with only $199 per student in local funds. Some voters, especially in more urban areas, have passed property tax referendums granting districts as much as $1,600 extra per student.

To cut costs, Superintendent Loy Woelber (right, with son) shares employees with other districts and serves as bus driver and coach
Dixie Severson
To cut costs, Superintendent Loy Woelber (right, with son) shares employees with other districts and serves as bus driver and coach

"It's only a matter of time before someone considers litigation about whether or not the state of Minnesota should be allowed to have this great disparity between the haves and have-nots," Razidlo says.

Brainerd is cutting $5.5 million of its $70 million budget. Fifty-three teaching positions, in addition to 27 support staff spots, were eliminated for next year. The district cut some $860,000 from the athletic and activities fund, and it is moving to a business model for extracurricular activities, increasing student participation fees 300 percent.

The district chipped away at a half-million dollars of its expenditures by closing two elementary schools and cutting out $180,000 in transportation costs by consolidating bus routes and eliminating schools of choice. It also expects to save $300,000 by charging for use of its facilities. "Basically, the Boy Scouts don't get to use our gymnasium for free anymore," says Razidlo.

Still, it's not enough. "As we move through our next year it's almost a foregone conclusion that we will be cutting again," he adds grimly.

Stories like what is happening in Brainerd just reiterate that the state isn't doing enough, Greiling says. "Right now it's not even enough for the meat and potatoes. If you want to operate you need that levy."

Ninety percent of the state's public schools have an operating referendum, in which residents voted to pay higher property taxes to finance the school, says Walseth. "That's 90 percent that can't run on state funding alone."

By contrast, Tom Melcher, program finance director for the Minnesota Department of Education, says he's unaware of any substantial funding problems in rural districts. "If you look at total expenditures per student, Minnesota is very close to the national average, and we've been there for many years—that's nothing new," he says.

Minnesota is one of the top four states in the percentage of school funding that comes from the state, as opposed to federal aid and local property taxes. The state increased its basic funding 1 percent for the 2008-09 school year to $5,125 per student. And to deal with rising costs, it provided a one-time addition of $51 per student. When special-education funding and the general education formula are combined, the state is keeping pace with inflation, Melcher says.

"I don't know what they are smoking," Greiling says of the MDOE. "They're cooking the books."

This summer Greiling is holding hearings throughout the state to fine-tune legislation that would overhaul the educational financing system and decrease schools' dependence on levies for basic operations. Her plan would increase the general education formula to $7,500 per student. It would also better account for high transportation costs and declining enrollment to help rural schools, she says.

"There's discussion on it every year in the Legislature, but there hasn't been the political will to do anything with it," says Kelly Smith, superintendent of the Belle Plaine School District. Smith has turned to voters six times in the last six years with referendum requests, trying to make up for the state's lack of funding. "One- to 2-percent increases on the [state education financing] formula never really fix the problem," he says.

"When every year it is a story of who's cutting what in which districts across Minnesota, there has to be recognition that the current funding mechanism is not appropriate in today's public schools." 

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