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Keep Reaching For the Stars

September 16, 2008 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

For years, radio host Kasey Casem admonished listeners to "keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars."

But for Minnesota schools districts, their feet are encased in a slurry of state budget cuts, and financial security is a dream just out of their reach.

State underinvestment in schools is forcing 38 districts onto the crowded Nov. 4 ballot to ask voters to help them pay the bills with property taxes. An additional six districts will go to the polls for bonds for building projects, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association.

This November, the districts must compete for attention on the ballot with high profile national and statewide elections. Historically, it's a losing proposition. In odd-numbered years, school levies have a 73 percent chance of passage. In even years, that rate drops to 54 and in years with presidential elections, the passage rate is 53 percent.

But these 38 districts don't have any choice. State underfunding has left them without enough money to provide basic services for our children. Since 2003, state aid to education has dropped a whopping 13 percent after adjusting for inflation. Local levies - meant to pay for "extras" - now typically make up as much as 20 percent of a school's budget.

Examples of Minnesota's education finance disaster abound: This fall, Osseo laid off 161 teachers and closed two schools; MACCRAY saved money by offering school only four days each week; Brainerd laid off 15 percent of its faculty; Crosby-Ironton cut all athletics, leaving it up to parents to pay for the programs.

Blooming Prairie Schools has no high school principal - the superintendent has assumed those duties. Class sizes are rising toward 30 students per teacher in elementary classes. Their budget fund balance was spent last year after the last levy referendum was rejected and they now face falling into debt.

School Board chair Kathi Peterson said she's heard that school elections tend to fare poorly when competing for attention with less local elections.

"But this it isn't an option," she said. "We ran one on an off year (last year) and that didn't pass then either, so we do what we have to do."

The district is asking to replace a $350 per student levy that was approved in 2001 with a $700 per student levy. If that passes, voters can also approve $200 per student for more academic programs, Peterson said.

If the levy fails, she said the all day every day kindergarten program could be cut as well as programs such as band, choral and Family and Consumer Science. Those decisions will be made next spring, she said.

Meanwhile, school levy supporters in Rockford Public Schools are facing a tough sell: The district currently taxes homeowners almost nothing -- $12 per student. The state average levy amount is about $900 per student. The levy would increase the amount to $912 per student, or about $319 for a house valued at $200,000.

"It sounds like a lot, but it's about a $319 per year increase," said Peggy LaVanger, a chairperson of Rockford's Vote Yes committee.

The district lost levy elections in 2003, 2004 and 2005, then chose to build taxpayer confidence before trying again, LaVanger said

The committee faces an uphill battle. Only 35 percent of households in Rockford have children in school. The district crosses five cities and townships, each with its own taxation structure which interacts with district finances differently. And of course there's the sticker shock of raising taxes to state average.

"It's always an uphill battle," LaVanger said.

It's an uphill battle that need not occur. Without an educated workforce, Minnesota's economy will die like a dinosaur in a tar pit as Baby Boomers retire and stretch the social service fabric to the breaking point. The state has failed our school by letting the funding situation deteriorate.

There will be no help for schools until next spring's legislative session, and with a weak economy the chances of help even then are slim. That means schools will continue to go to voters to ask them to pay what the state should be paying.

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