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Minnesota schools, failed by the state, look to the ballot

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

But for Minnesota school 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.

Big drop in state aid to education
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.

‘We do what we have to do’
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.

Tough sell in Rockford
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.

John Fitzgerald has spent nearly 20 years as a newspaper reporter and editor in Minnesota, Florida, Iowa and Montana. He is a fellow at Minnesota 2020, an economic think tank in St. Paul. This article first appeared on its website.


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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/24/2008 - 01:36 pm.

    Yeah. Thought so.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/19/2008 - 11:59 am.

    “Since 2003, state aid to education has dropped a whopping 13 percent after adjusting for inflation.”

    That statement is absolutely false. It is a lie.

    In fact, according to an October 2007 report prepared by the House Research Department for the Minnesota School Finance Committee, state aid *increased* by 13 percent.

    http://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/hrd/pubs/mnschfin.pdf

    Oh, we can be sure that Mr. Fitzgerald will pull some redeeming statistic from the cryptoclastic pile of mumbo-jumbo that supports such dishonest claims by defenders of the status quo, but the solid, irrefutable fact is that state support for K-12 education has never, ever, not once “declined”.

    Never.

    Mr. Fitzgerald might be interested to know that at my insistance, an investigation by Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner concluded that the SPPS had knowingly lied when it made that same statement in a piece campaign literature in 2002. Look it up.

    That leaves two questions to be answered by the thoughtful reader.

    1. Why do public education apologists have to rely on lies and obfuscation when presenting their arguments?

    2. How much *is* enough? How much money is necessary, as a start, to ensure that Twin Cities public schools graduate 90% of their students? How much to graduate even 70%?

    I’ve waited more than 15 years for an answer to that second question…I’m not holding my breath for an honest answer to either of them now.

    The defenders of the status quo, Education Minnesota most prominently, are in an genuine panic. Oh, not because of the absolutely dismal record of failure they have lorded over these past 30 years. Not because they have sent thousands of kids out to face a lifetime failure as functional illiterates.

    They are panic stricken because they see a direct threat to the control over vast sums of money and the political clout that money has bought them. And now they have resorted to sock puppetry.

    Does MN2020 receive any financial support from EdMN, Mr. Fitzgerald?

    This despicable charade has gone along unmolested for years. It is high time that the stakeholders of Minnesota’s public school system (every man, woman and child in the state) stand up and take our schools back from the greedy, politically driven power brokers that have reduced it to ashes.

    I’ll begin to make my stand right here, right now.

    Please feel free to take your deceitful amphigory back to the “think tank” at your earliest convenience, Mr. Fitzgerald. EdMN doesn’t have enough money to market this crap any longer.

  3. Submitted by myles spicer on 09/19/2008 - 11:32 am.

    Forgive this long winded response…but there is far more at stake here than mere weak education. What is really on the line is America’s pre-eminence as a leading world power.

    In a powerful new book (Free Lunch) David Cay Johnston notes that there were three important “revolutions” in our history: the Industrial Revolution in the 19th Century; the Service revolution in the 20th; and the Information Revolution in the 21st. The previous two either built or kept jobs in America. The third one (Information) KNOWS NO BORDERS! And, it’s success will be determined by those nations that best educate their citizens.

    Will it be America? Will it be the our children in Minnesota? The correct answer will make a huge difference in our future.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/19/2008 - 04:27 pm.

    “Since 2003, state aid to education has dropped a whopping 13 percent after adjusting for inflation.”

    That statement is false…

    That was the conclusion of Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner when, at my insistance in 2002, Gaertners office completed an investigation into a pro-levy pamphlet published by the Saint Paul school district that made the same, exact claim.

    Oh, we can be sure that Mr. Fitzgerald will pull some redeeming statistic from the cryptoclastic pile of mumbo-jumbo that supports such dishonest claims by defenders of the status quo, but the solid, irrefutable fact is that state support for K-12 education has never, ever, not once declined.

    Never.

    That leaves two questions to be answered by the thoughtful reader.

    1. Why do public education apologists have to rely on lies and obfuscation when presenting their arguments?

    2. How much *is* enough? How much money is necessary, as a start, to ensure that Twin Cities public schools graduate 90% of their students? How much to graduate even 70%?

    The defenders of the status quo, Education Minnesota most prominently, are in an absolute panic. Oh, not because of the absolutely dismal record of failure they have lorded over these past 30 years. Not because they have sent thousands of kids out to face a lifetime failure as functional illiterates.

    They are panic stricken because they see a direct threat to the control over vast sums of money and the political clout that money has bought them.

    This despicable charade has gone along unmolested for years. It is high time that the stakeholders of Minnesota’s public school system (every man, woman and child in the state) stand up and take our schools back from the greedy, politically driven power brokers that have reduced it to ashes.

    I’ll begin by making my stand right here, right now.

    Does MN2020 receive any financial support from EdMN, Mr. Fitzgerald?

  5. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/20/2008 - 08:59 am.

    Joe, some readers might have noticed that it was Mr. Fitzgerald, not Mr. Sptizer that I was directing my comments to.

    I cited a credible source that directly refutes Mr. Fitzgerald’s assertion.

    I’ll cite it again for you now:

    http://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/hrd/pubs/mnschfin.pdf

    By the way, Joe; I seem to recall that you were running for the executive board of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers a couple of years ago.

    Let’s see…..was it President?

    How did that work out for you, Joe?

  6. Submitted by Joe Musich on 09/19/2008 - 09:52 pm.

    As a reader am I supposed to accept bombast as factual evidence the Mr. Spicer is incorrect ? I think not oh Swift one. Bombast away but that position is close to that other b word. You know that the Spicer pont of view can be corraborated in many other ways. You can join the reality of the 21st century anytime you’d like,

    Thanks !

  7. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/22/2008 - 12:15 pm.

    Mr. Fitzgerald that wasn’t a rhetorical question. I think it would be nice if you disclosed the conflict of interest a financial relationship with the teacher’s union would present.

    We call it “full disclosure” out here in the blogosphere, and it’s pretty much a non-negotiable requisite before any credability is lent.

    Has MN2020 received funding from EdMN, it’s PAC or any of it’s affiliate locals?

    Thank you for your response.

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