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Standing By as State's Education Infrastructure Crumbles

April 20, 2010 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

In the tradition of court jesters, Gov. Tim Pawlenty directed Minnesotans' attention to Race to the Top yesterday, hoping we wouldn't see what has really been happening to the state's education system.
Race to the Top is a federal grant program that gives money to states that toe the line on federal education policy. Minnesota finished 20th in the race this spring and could get as much as $175 million if it places better this summer. To perform better, Pawlenty yesterday offered a package of new laws to make Minnesota education more amenable to the feds.

But Race to the Top is a sideshow. The real issue facing Minnesota, the one you won't see Gov. Pawlenty holding a press conference on anytime soon, is the fact that during the Governor's tenure, state funding for public education has been cut-and then cut some more.
While much of the recent funding attention has been directed toward the St. Paul school district's plan to meet its budget by closing schools and shuttering programs, the state's third-largest district is by no means alone.

As the Governor prepares for round two of Race to the Top, we are witnessing the crumbling of Minnesota's education infrastructure. Without proper funding from the state, districts have to make pacts with the devil to keep their doors open. Minnesota schools depend on state funds to educate students, but lawmakers have cut spending by 14 percent since 2003. That means districts from the Arrowhead to the Iowa border have been forced to diminish the quality of education they offer to Minnesota students.

Without a quality education, Minnesota students will not be able to compete in the worldwide marketplace. Minnesota - an isolated, cold state - will suffer in the coming years unless its children are properly educated. Without sufficient funding, a proper education will not happen.

Here's a quick rundown of cuts or proposed cuts from around the state, gleaned from news reports. Remember that while the numbers cut in larger districts are more impressive, cuts in smaller districts can be more devastating because they have fewer personnel to lose.

In St. Paul, four elementary schools will close while programs at six other schools will move to different buildings or be combined with existing programs. In the process, Arlington High School will close, its students absorbed by other high schools, and the building will be used by Washington Middle School.
This is part of a plan to cut expenses by $31 million for the 2010-11 school year. Other cuts include eliminating all middle school athletics, reorganizing central administration to cut eight positions, and changing walking distance from one mile to two miles for high school students.

Meanwhile, the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district recently approved $15.3 million in budget cuts and fee increases for 2010-11. The district will cut the equivalent of 78 classroom teachers and more than 35 teaching specialists and other licensed staff positions. The district will also cut programs and raise $3.9 million from increased charges for band instrument rental, driver's education and other fees.

The  Robbinsdale school district will lay off 22 teachers to stave off a projected $5.3 million shortfall next year.

The Prior Lake-Savage school district will cut about 22 teachers to help fill a $3.7 million gap for 2010-11. About half of the cuts come from classroom staff, with the rest coming from administration and custodians.

In the Centennial school district, 30 non-tenured teachers and 23 paraprofessionals will be laid off. Addressing a decline in enrollment and the state's budget shenanigans that include cuts, cash shifts and payment delays, district Business Affairs Director Dale Sundstrom told school board members "the (district's budget) will collapse in the future if funding doesn't come in. We can't do this forever."

The Inver Grove Heights school district will cut $1.1 million by eliminating eight teaching jobs and 3.5 paraprofessionals.

School District 112 in Chaska is looking at $1.1 million in cuts that could include a salary freeze, class size increase and a four-day school week.
The Stewartville school board is looking to cut three teaching positions and two paraprofessionals. The district has already cut staff development, classroom and general supplies, and dropped school temperatures. The district's superintendent said the district could save up to $4,400 if students were required to bring a ream of paper at the start of the year.

In Park Rapids, the district will not replace five retired employees, including one principal, and eliminate four paraprofessionals.
Board members in the Little Falls school district are wrestling with a $1.2 million deficit. Administrators have identified $850,400 in reductions, and are looking for areas to cut the rest.

The Crookston school district is firing a music teacher, four special education paraprofessionals, several assistants and is not renewing the contract of the Dean of Students.

The Kingsland school board will meet next year's projected shortfall by cutting staff and reducing the number of kindergarten classes.

The Fairmont Area school district will meet budget problems by not replacing retiring teachers.

District 777 in Benson is looking to cut three positions, although officials have said that may not amount to enough savings for next year's budget.
This is a partial list. As more districts prepare their final budgets and the state Legislature nears adjournment, the failure of Minnesota's education funding scheme will become more apparent. Where once we could coast on the work of past lawmakers who knew that a quality education was key to our growth and success, today's state leaders have squandered that solid base and provided us with the crumbling infrastructure we have today.

The state's funding antics have backed school districts into a corner. Four-day school weeks, larger class size, teacher layoffs, thermostat tinkering, athletics eliminated, high schools shuttered, requests for more paper-these are the choices schools districts are forced to make. Turning down the heat in the dead of winter or eliminating a kindergarten teacher? Is this what it's come to?

Minnesota's public education was once admired around the country, but we're quickly heading toward average at best. Without a recommitment from state leaders to fully fund our schools, we expect to see more of the same tough choices pushed on school districts across the state. It's foolish to focus on Race to the Top applications when the real issue is that bad state education policy is behind the problems facing school districts today. It's time to get back to work on providing our kids with a top-notch education.

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