Forest Lake will close schools, fire teachers, if voters don't loosen wallets

Students like Rachel de Sobrino will see athletics, activities, and classes for everything from music to languages disappear. Not to mention entire schools.

Students like Rachel de Sobrino will see athletics, activities, and classes for everything from music to languages disappear. Not to mention entire schools. Rachel de Sobrino

The people of Forest Lake have more than a selection of candidates on the ballot this year. The school district wants them to approve a levy of $825 per pupil, which would generate $5.5 million a year over eight years.

Superintendent Steve Massey isn't mincing his words. The district's in desperate straits.

State funding hasn't kept pace with inflation for about 25 years. Many communities have passed levys to fill most or all of the gap. Not Forest Lake, which last approved an increase in 2006.

"Coupled with lagging state funding and a voter approved referendum that is 12 years old, we face financial challenges to the effect of, over the last four years, $7.5 million of budget cuts," Massey matter-of-factly announced at the last school board meeting.

He then pulled out an apocalyptic list of things on the chopping block: entire elementary schools, teachers, music, foreign language, agriculture, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes, athletics, and after-school activities.

In case the numbers alone fail to move voters, droves of students have been pounding the pavement, knocking on doors, and telling their own tales of austerity.

Senior Rachel de Sobrino has seen beloved teachers cut and class sizes balloon.

She attends two classes with upwards of 40 students each. Every after-school club or sport comes with a fee. De Sobrino pays $200 a semester for parking, and another $200 to be part of the debate team, which was almost cancelled after the coach quit.

Which leads to Forest Lake's miserly pay. According to the district, 53 teachers have found jobs elsewhere, averaging an immediate $10,000 jump in salary.This spring, the school board closed Central Montessori Elementary School.

"A lot of people feel like the school district just doesn’t spend its money wisely, or misrepresents the funding that we do spend," de Sobrino says.

"And I really think that just comes from not even looking at the information, because the school district’s incredibly transparent about what is going on. They’ve laid out a clear plan this year of where funding would go if it were to pass."

De Sobrino says some resistence likely comes of people not understanding the difference between an operating levy (which pays for teachers and things like books, heating and transporation) and a bond (which pays for building upgrades). So they drive past remodeled elementary schools and assume the district doesn't know the first thing about budgeting.

The superintendent's also gotten an earful from an all-knowing public.

"At our community meetings we hear all sorts of suggestions on how we could fix our budget," he told the board earlier this month.

"We often hear, 'Well, cut your administration!' And I’m quick to respond with, 'We’ve already done that.' We have cut two assistant principals in the last two years. Our administrative costs are 15 percent less than the state average. We are awfully lean from an administrative standpoint."