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Death by Paper Cuts

June 02, 2008 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Gov. Tim Pawlenty is killing public education in Minnesota with a thousand paper cuts.

Faced with the governor's skimpy education budget, rural school districts are trimming a little here and a little there to make ends meet. Last year's 1 percent increase in state funding, coupled with this year's $51-per-student bump, leaves districts only several hundred thousand dollars in the hole, forestalling wholesale budget slashing for at least another year.

The MACCRAY school district (Maynard, Clara City and Raymond) is considering instituting a four-day school week in the fall to save money. Superintendent Greg Schmidt said the move was projected to save about $65,000 in utility and transportation costs. But now, higher fuel costs have already cut the savings to $25,000.

Even with a four-day schedule, the district needs to cut another $300,000 in costs. One social studies teacher is leaving the district and will not be replaced. Schmidt will use other social studies teachers to fill the gap. Junior high Spanish has been cancelled. While science and agriculture curricula will be reviewed, new purchases are dicey. Physical education, family and consumer science and band and choir positions have been reduced. There are plans to close a building and move students to other schools. High school classes will average 29 students per teacher, well above recommended numbers.

"They're just nickel-and-diming us to death," Schmidt said. "We're thankful for the $51 per student, but that's only $37,000 for our district. That's half a position. You can avoid a cut with that money, but you can't add anything."

Westbrook-Walnut Grove Superintendent Loy Woelber is equally downbeat. He lobbied legislators for better classroom funding, but the $30,000 his district will receive from the $51-per-student deal will go to higher diesel costs.

To save money, Westbrook-Walnut Grove is cutting one bus route. "But I know what will happen," Woelber said. "We'll get some kid to open-enroll from Lamberton, and we'll have to run a van to get him."

Westbrook-Walnut Grove cut one elementary teacher this year and bumped four part-timers to 80 percent to make up the difference. In-service funds for paraprofessionals have been cut.

Woelber has taken a second job as superintendent of the neighboring Balaton school district, serving there just one day a week. His principals in Westbrook and Walnut Grove are nearing retirement. If one leaves, Woelber himself will have to fill the gap.

The district has nine teachers eligible to retire, but Woelber said they might put off retirement because they are nervous about health care costs and living on a diminished income.

Without more money, Westbrook-Walnut Grove will cut three full-time teachers. Walnut Grove will host K-6 and Westbrook will host 7-12. "It's the first time this has happened," Woelber said. "People won't like it, but we'll have to do it."

People won't like what's going to happen in MACCRAY, either. Last November, MACCRAY voters approved $225 per student in new funding. It's not enough. After $700,000 in cuts in 2007 and $300,000 this year, the district will be asking voters for more money this fall.

One paper cut here, a drop of blood there and soon districts like MACCRAY and Westbrook-Walnut Grove -- already on the precipice of functional insufficiency -- will see students using open enrollment to seek out less cash-strapped districts. Their search will be in vain. The state provides a meaningless 1 percent increase gobbled up by soaring fuel prices. It offers a $51-per-student one-time bump that might keep one half-time teacher employed, but nothing more.

The message, unfortunately, comes through loud and clear. Responsibly funded public school districts are not a conservative priority. Until Minnesota embraces a policy shift, public schools will continue to endure death by a thousand paper cuts.


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