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Stingy voters and state budgets are gutting the Forest Lake school district

Forest Lake Area Schools have made millions in budget cuts in recent years. The Central Montessori Elementary School, seen here on the right, is next on the chopping block.

Forest Lake Area Schools have made millions in budget cuts in recent years. The Central Montessori Elementary School, seen here on the right, is next on the chopping block. Google Earth

Minnesota is nationally renowned for investing in education, but in the Forest Lake Area Schools district, budget cuts have become habitual.

In the wake of a failed referendum last November to increase its operating levy, the Forest Lake school board approved a salvo of cost-cutting measures last Thursday, continuing a streak of cuts that have gutted the school district, which draws in students from Scandia, Wyoming, Columbus, Linwood, and parts of Lino Lakes.

Cuts authorized at the April 5 meeting are the latest in a decade-long funding struggle driven by lower student enrollment and funding that has lagged behind inflating costs. The perpetual cuts have resulted in increased class sizes and gutted programs, and have made it difficult to retain teachers who can make more in neighboring districts.

“We’re at a place now where we’re making $2 million cuts,” says Forest Lake School Board chair Rob Rapheal. “Our administration is bare-bones. Our teaching staff is barebones. It really hurts.”

This crisis point is the result of the district’s funding, both from the community and the state, lagging behind rising costs — mostly salaries, Raphael observes.

Voters in the district have repeatedly refused to pitch in more. The property tax levy that funds the district’s operating costs has not changed in 11 years, freezing a critical source of funding while costs have gone up. In November, voters rejected a referendum that would’ve increased funding by $750 per pupil. Had the referendum passed, Raphael said the cuts imposed last week could’ve been avoided.

Why are Forest Lake district voters saying no, year after year? Raphael says reasons are partly economic and partly political.

Rural school districts have fewer businesses paying property taxes, so most of the levy burden is borne by homeowners. That means homeowners in Forest Lake have to contribute more per-student than residents in economically wealthier districts to provide the same resources for students. It’s also an uphill battle to convince conservative rural Minnesotans to pay more taxes for anything — even education.

“My district is not very tolerant of property tax increases,” says Rapheal. “Their default stance is, 'No.'”

State education funding has also not kept pace with inflation, according to Forest Lake Public School District Superintendent Steve Massey.

“When you get a one-to-two percent [funding] increase from the state, you’ve got a problem,” he said. “Things get tighter and tighter. Class sizes go up, and services become less available.”

Making matters worse, the district’s enrollment has declined. The state education formula allocates funds based on student population, and the Forest Lake district's has decreased by 13 percent in the past 10 years, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

The cycle of cuts that has become painfully familiar. The district has slashed $5.5 million worth of funding for teacher salaries, supplies, and support services in the last three years alone.

“The stuff that was easy to cut was cut ten years ago,” says Rapheal. “You’re put into a position where you’re doing what you know is wrong for those kids.”

The round of cost reductions approved last week will do away with seven full-time teaching positions, several administrative roles, and four bus routes. The district is dropping a position that provides guidance to struggling students. The new budget will also impose more costs on students, increasing parking fees and requiring they pay for their own advanced placement exams.

The cuts will keep coming. On May 3, the school board will hold a community meeting to hear feedback on closing Central Montessori Elementary School as part of expense reductions the district needs to make by the end of the fiscal year.

“We’ve got $300,000 more cuts we’ve got to make,” said Rapheal. “If we don’t close Central Montessori, you’re looking at [cutting] six teachers.”

The uncomfortable math playing out above them is not lost on the student body.

“Some teachers are here because they love their coworkers and students, even when they could be making thousands of dollars more in another district,” says Forest Lake Area High School senior Bridget Beynon. “It’s really disappointing. Our educators are amazing.”