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Schools Brace For Financial Troubles

January 02, 2009 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

With a projected state revenue shortfall closing in on $6 billion, lawmakers are likely to be chary when eyeing funds for Minnesota's overburdened and underfunded schools.

Leaders in schools across the state, who have been trying to make ends meet even though state school funding has dropped 13 percent since 2003, are already planning for the inevitable budget troubles. For some school leaders, that means planning for budgets with no increase to meet inflationary costs for items like fuel and health insurance. For others, that means budget cuts that will lead to teacher layoffs.

"We're going to batten down the hatches," said Grand Meadow superintendent Joe Brown. He said school leaders don't have the luxury of waiting until May or after a special session for lawmakers to decide what to do about the budget deficit. "We have to be proactive. We have to open the doors again in eight months," he said.

That's why representatives of four Mower County school districts -- Southland, Grand Meadow, LeRoy-Ostrander and Lyle -- gathered Monday morning to explore new areas of collaboration.

These and other nearby districts have been sharing services for years. Brown said Grand Meadow shares an agriculture teacher, sports programs and a speech pathologist with surrounding districts. He said four districts agreed last year to share special education functions to save on transportation costs and to keep state money in the districts.

On Monday, the four districts agreed to look into interactive television. With ITV, students and a teacher in a specially equipped classroom in, say, Southland can interact with three or four students in Lyle, three in Grand Meadow and several in LeRoy-Ostrander, saving the cost of one teacher for one period at those schools.

Another advantage is that ITV keeps students, and the state's financial manna that comes with them, in the district. Southland has been using ITV for about one year. Superintendent Steve Sallee said two years ago about 30 students transferred out of the district to take college-level classes at Riverland Community College. With ITV, about 20 now stay in the district.

ITV is cost-neutral, Sallee said. An ITV classroom costs between $10,000 and $20,000 to set up, although Sallee found some equipment at bargain costs.

Brown said he'll try to "scrounge around" for the equipment to set up an ITV classroom in Grand Meadow, but knows the money will be hard to find. 

Funding problems have hit Grand Meadow hard. The district was in statutory operating debt last year, but worked its way out in one year by cutting its band, Spanish and family and consumer science programs as well as sharing an agriculture teacher, sports programs, some nursing services and some special education functions with area schools.

All four districts have recently asked local voters to make up for the money the state won't provide, and voters in these districts have approved property tax levy increases within the past two years, showing strong support and satisfaction with their local schools.

But years of underfunding are in the rear-view mirror, and a storm of underfunding is on the road ahead.

"This state needs leaders," Brown said. "It needs leaders who are capable of saying that we need money released into the economy today, not six months from now after a special session. We have to plan ahead. We can't wait for the state leadership to catch up with us."

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