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Too many Minnesota schools are barely hanging on; state infusion needed

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.

A casualty already from shift
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.”

Four-day school week
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.

Levy: ‘It’s all about maintenance’
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.

John Fitzgerald is an education policy fellow at Minnesota 2020, a nonpartisan progressive think tank based in St. Paul. This article originally appeared on the organization’s website.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 12/04/2009 - 12:51 pm.

    Not enough money for Union Education?

    Same story, same techniques, same special interests, same ideas.

  2. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 12/04/2009 - 02:46 pm.

    Re: Mr Gotzman
    Strange thing about education reform is that everyone thinks they’re an expert just because they went to school. No need to review the existing research on what actually works in practice because teaching is so easy that anyone could do it, right? It’s kind of like people thinking they are qualified to advise on economics just because they have a bank account.

    John Hattie has an excellent book called “Visible Learning” summarizing thousands of studies on education. Yes, good teachers do make a difference, but there are numerous factors that contribute. Good students tend to do better regardless of the school, so paying more to get better teachers will have a limited effect (and don’t forget, if you really want to improve schools, you have to be willing to pay market rates to convince good people to work as teachers).

    Teaching is actually very similar to management, you have to persuade people to do things they often don’t want to do. However, managers can sack lazy workers, but teachers can’t sack lazy students, you have to deal with them. This makes identifying good teachers very difficult because objective measures of performance are difficult or impossible. There are huge problems using standardized test scores to rate teachers. One is that even a few problem kids in a class can make a huge difference to mean score gains, so you need some way of analyzing score gains to isolate the contribution of the teacher from all the “noise” in the data. Very few administrators have the statistical skills to do that rigorously enough to stand up in court. Let’s face it; most people with post-graduate training in statistics or psychometrics are going to work in fields that pay much more than education.
    Another major problem concerns “regression to the mean”, a well-known problem in statistics that is frequently overlooked in analyzing standardized test results. This paper by an Educational Testing Service researcher (http://tinyurl.com/mebdvg)
    describes the problem. I would suggest that anyone who can’t follow the fairly basic statistics in that report, really has no business demanding that people be sacked. I am all for performance evaluations of teachers, but, if you take the issue seriously, then take the time to learn how to do it properly and be prepared to pay higher taxes to attract, train, and retain good teachers.

  3. Submitted by Mike Wyatt on 12/06/2009 - 06:30 pm.

    Since 2003 State investment has dropped by 13 percent. How does the student body percentage during that same time frame compare? Were there fewer students? I’d like to see that side of the stat story.

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