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Minnesota Schools That Are Just Hanging On

December 02, 2009 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

An injured swimmer can either sink or stay afloat. In some cases, the best he can do is hold steady. For many Minnesota school districts, "hold steady" is the best they can hope.

State investment in schools has dropped 13 percent since 2003. Since state funding makes up more than 80 percent of a school district's budget, officials have had to ask local voters to fill the void left by the state and properly fund their schools.

In difficult economic times, asking voters for more money is a difficult task, one that often meets with failure. The number of school districts that rely on the "extras" levy to make ends meet now tops 95 percent. In November, 63 of Minnesota's 340 school districts asked voters for more money. While 50 districts were successful, 13 are left searching for ways to cut their budget. Often, this means teacher layoffs or program cutbacks.

On top of this, Gov. Tim Pawlenty readjusted the yearly education funding shift from 10 percent to 27 percent each year. This means schools had to find a quick 17 percent of their state aid to cut or take out loans to meet their bills, thus adding interest payments to their bills.

Pawlenty's budget shift has already claimed one casualty: Skills for Tomorrow charter school will close its doors at the end of the year because it can't find the funding to make up the loss from the shift.

Even worse, the state and federal governments have yet to pay their share of mandated special education care. This unfunded mandate costs school districts millions of dollars each year.

Into this fine kettle of fish comes district like MACCRAY. Perched along State Highway 23 through Maynard, Clara City and Raymond, the district has two elementary schools and a combined junior and senior high school.

The district asked voters to increase the amount they pay for schools by $600 per student - exchanging a $501 levy for a $1,101 over 10 years. This would be in addition to currently running levies of $225 and $270 per student, plus a four year $65 per student levy for maintenance projects.

Voters approved 701 to 325, Schmidt said.

"It surprised us," he said. "Despite a wet October it was a good year for farmers, but the farmers were all in the fields on Election Day. There wasn't much talk about it in town, so this was kind of a surprise - along with a lot of relief."

The total local school tax stands at $1,661 per student. "It's a significant amount of money," Schmidt said, "but passing the levy doesn't address the main problem which is that the state is not paying its fair share."

Last year MACCRAY instituted a four-day school week to save money. Students and parents don't seem to mind the longer days and longer weekends, and test scores haven't shown any strain. Running a four-day week allowed the district to save about $70,000 over the school year.

But MACCRAY faces a major hurdle with enrollment. The district is graduating 70 students and will see about 40 enter kindergarten, for a per student loss of state aid of about $246,000, Schmidt said. "It's a big hit at the high school. You can't just cut one seventh or one eighth out of the contracts."

The school has no net loss or gain from open enrollment, and loses about 64 students to a private school in Prinsburg.

In the meantime, the district will continue with the four-day school week and will evaluate the positions of all retirees to decide if they need to be filled.

The levy that just passed will help keep the education quality stable in Maynard, Clara City and Raymond, but only just that.

"It's all about maintenance. You just have to make sure you have attractive programs for families and the kids, and if you do that you can maintain jobs," Schmidt said.

For Minnesota, maintaining isn't enough. We have to be getting better every year. That takes investment and it's time for state policymakers to make that investment.

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