By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
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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.
"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.
"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."