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School levy bottom line: Pay now or later

Voters who said no to funding referendums in such metro-area districts as Robbinsdale, Elk River, Inver Grove Heights and Prior Lake-Savage may be celebrating what they see as a victory over higher property taxes, but it’s really just a “pay me now or pay me later” scenario.

Never mind what drastic program cuts will do to the students now caught in the middle, but the long-term effects can be catastrophic, according to Henry M. Levin, professor of education and economy at Teacher’s College of Columbia University in New York. Levin has written and lectured extensively on the correlation of education and economics. Voters are being “penny wise and pound foolish,” Levin says. “In general, we’ve found that investments in education have big payoffs for society, individuals and taxpayers,” Levin adds.

Think about it. It’s one big domino effect. Provide students with curricula and extracurriculars that interest them and you’ll probably keep them in school. “Basically, any educator knows that if you don’t get kids engaged, they’re not going to get much out of the education system, and when they can leave, they’re out of there,” said Levin. (He will be in St. Paul on Monday to take part in “Smart Investments in Minnesota’s Students,” a daylong forum on education and economics sponsored by the think tank Growth & Justice.)

Curriculum offerings such as art, instrumental music and extracurricular activities such as athletics do engage kids. Those things often are the only things keeping some kids in school and maintaining decent grades, say parents and educators. But those are the first things to go when funding levels aren’t where they need to be.

The story was pretty much the same in all 99 of the state’s 341 districts seeking additional revenue: state funding and local tax dollars are not keeping up with the rising costs of education. For simplicity’s sake, let’s take a look at one district where the referendum failed — Robbinsdale, District 281.

Robbinsdale, in northwest Hennepin County, has 13,000 students and 1,600 employees. Students consistently score higher than state and national averages on the ACT college entrance exam. Last year students had an Adequate Yearly Progress rate of 93 percent. The district spends 96 cents of every dollar on instruction, student support services and facilities and just four cents on administration, making it the fourth lowest in administrative spending in Hennepin County, according to information from the district.

Yet the plea for help went unheeded and the students will suffer the consequences. Over the next two years, $9 million must be cut from the budget, resulting in:

· Closing an elementary school, increasing class size by 1.7 as those students are redistributed among the remaining schools.

· Increasing secondary class size by 1.4.

· Eliminating all middle school athletics and after-school activities.

· Increasing the participation fees for those activities at the high school level

· Eliminating programming for gifted students at the elementary level.

Robin Smothers, one of the chairs of the Vote Yes campaign in Robbinsdale, expressed disappointment in the defeat of the referendum, chalking it up partly to “an older demographic that wants us to get back to the basics and cut those extra programs.” At the same time, she said, folks want our students to be competitive in the global economy. “You can’t have it both ways,” she said.

And as for long-term effects of inadequate education — increases in crime, fewer workers contributing significantly to the tax base, more people needing public assistance and Medicaid — well, “pay me now or pay me later.”

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Barry Knight on 11/10/2007 - 09:03 am.

    A world class education should be a strategic initiative of every school district in the state. That requires investment spending, great teachers, small class sizes, committed and involved parents and buildings and resources that enhance and enable optimal learning. Like the country’s infrastructure, we risk the collapse of our competitiveness without a wholesale rethinking of our priorities. And who pays? Our kids and, ultimately, our country.

  2. Submitted by John Olson on 11/10/2007 - 11:15 am.

    I agree with the basic premise; however, to make this a reality it is time to quit putting the burden on local school boards to constantly ask voters on a district-by-district basis to pay for education mandates from Washington or St. Paul.

    Many small districts in rural areas face shrinking enrollments, outdated buildings, skyrocketing energy and transportation costs and a declining tax base. Aging communities with higher percentages of persons on fixed incomes and shrinking populations are not going to be as inclined to support increasing their own taxes.

    Having a viable local public school system in a community is as essential to economic development as roads, land and workers.

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