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MN2020 - School District in Sad Situation, Not Alone
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School District in Sad Situation, Not Alone

October 29, 2008 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

It's about local control and state educational funding, not about the bottled water, the football team, the condemned building, the budget debt, the declining enrollment or the dissolution of the district.

In 1997, the Stewart and Brownton school districts consolidated and became the McLeod West district. Neither town much liked the idea. Many students preferred their own district and, rather than attend the other, opted into nearby districts. Many Stewart students enrolled in the Buffalo Lake-Hector district, while many Brownton students enrolled in Hutchinson. As enrollment dropped in McLeod West, so too did the amount of money available for the district to provide an education.

The district's finances fell further and further behind. As the state cut back on aid, the district asked four times to increase property tax levies. All failed. The district now stands in statutory operating debt.

Two years ago the district closed the school building in Stewart, angering parents in that town. More students left the district.  What had been an enrollment of nearly 1,000 had dropped to nearly 500.

The Brownton school building consists of a middle section built in 1922 and two wings built in the 1960s. In June, new part-time superintendent Tony Boyer asked for an inspection of the middle section of the school building. It was condemned.

This was the final straw for many in the district. After the building was condemned, enrollment dropped to 242. Boyer cut a deal with the GFW (Gibbon, Fairfax and Winthrop) district to teach students in grade 7 through 12 for five periods each day, then bus the students back for two periods at McLeod West.

The story continues:

After four failed attempts to increase the property tax levy, McLeod West is asking voters on Tuesday to revoke two levies that total $700 and replace them with a $1,511 per pupil levy. But even if the levy passes, the district is not assured of solvency. The increased levy will only get the district out of debt. That doesn't address the crumbling building, the outflow of students or the inadequacy of state aid.

Without the levy's passage, McLeod West will dissolve. With the money, Boyer hopes to keep at least a K-6 program in McLeod West with the remainder of the students opted out to GFW.

Meanwhile, media attention has been lavished on the McLeod West football team. The Falcons went 6-2 before losing in the playoffs to top seed New Ulm Cathedral. Writers and producers from ABC, ESPN and a passel of state media outlets keyed on the fact that this season will likely be the Falcon's last.

School backers have seized on the attention and started a "Drink It Forward" campaign in which supporters can buy Save the Falcons bottled water at $1.25 per bottle, sending 70 cents back to the school and the rest to pay for the bottle, label and to send bottles to area media to tell McLeod West's story. If the school district dissolves, the money will be evenly distributed to each student to be spent on higher education, Boyer said. The website is www.savethemightyfalcons.com.

"It's a Hail Mary pass, is what it amounts to," Boyer said of the bottled water campaign. His interest is in the levy election. "If the levy doesn't pass, it tells me people aren't interested in saving this district."

Football fans like to point to one play upon which victory hinged, but everyone knows that true victory comes not from one play but a long series of practices, repetitions and play execution that starts well before that climactic play.

In McLeod West, it's not about the bottled water, or the football team, or the operating debt, or Tuesday's levy election, or the condemned school building, or the closing of another building, or even the outmigration of students.

More than 80 school districts consolidated between 1990 and 2000, but neither Stewart nor Brownton was well served by this process. The one-size-fits-all strategy resulted in the destruction of Stewart and Brownton, and now McLeod West. Had a process through which the needs and desires of both communities been met, had the state properly invested in education without forcing districts to rely on voter-approved levies, McLeod West students might now still have the prospect of a home district and not have to travel many miles to be absorbed into another district.

Because of the football team and the bottled water and the condemned building and the dire straight of the district, McLeod West may be the most compelling story of this year's levy elections, but it is also the saddest because it could have been avoided.

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