Students Walk, Pay More As Minnesota Schools Cut Costs
In addition to keeping up with the win-loss records of her 12th grade daughter's high school teams, Liz Leitch-Sell of Monticello, Minn., must keep up with the new price tag for the sports.
The Monticello school district, which has been blasted by the same fiscal chill affecting other schools across Minnesota, has raised classroom sizes as well as sports fees to make the $2 million in cuts needed to balance the district's $27 million budget for fiscal 2003.
Ms. Leitch-Sell cringes at the mention of her daughter's sports fees, which have nearly doubled, to $375, this year for three sports. "It starts to become something you can do only if you have money, which is awfully sad," she said.
As such budget-balancing scenes play out in districts throughout the state, policymakers and school experts are trading shots over what can be done about the worsening school budget situation.
For some, the foundation for the current school aid woes was laid in 2001, when the legislature passed a law that shifted the burden for nearly $1 billion in school funding from local property taxes to the state. State lawmakers vowed to make up that amount through sales, income, and business taxes.
Then came Sept. 11 and a worsening economic slump nationwide. When the legislature met last winter, the surpluses of 2001 had been replaced by a $2 billion deficit.
While lawmakers closed the gap by dipping into reserves, shifting funds, and cutting spending, critics are resurrecting the argument that property taxes are a more stable form of school revenue in economic downturns than state sales and income taxes.
"The big problem was that when they took $1 billion for that initiative, it left very little to spend on education initiatives," said Scott Croonquist, the executive director of the St. Paul-based Association of Metropolitan School Districts, which advocates on behalf of its 26 member districts.
John Wodele, a spokesman for outgoing Independent Gov. Jesse Ventura, said the new tax law isn't to blame: "It was merely a shift that would have zero effect on their ... bottom line."
He conceded, however, that the funding allocated by the state is not enough to make sure that districts keep up with rising costs.
But "they have suffered less than any other part of government," he said of local schools.
"They are getting more money this year than they were last year," Mr. Wodele said. "That's not to say they're not having problems."
To be sure, districts are getting a minimal increase in funding from the state, but it's not enough to make up for rising costs, said Mike Benedetto, the superintendent of the 3,800-student Monticello schools. Health-insurance premiums, for example, have gone up by as much as 18 percent in Monticello, he said.
"If you're getting 2.6 or 2.9 percent of new [state] money, you can't keep up," Mr. Benedetto added.
And it doesn't look as though the situation is going to get much better any time soon. Minnesota's most recent economic forecasts project a $3.2 billion deficit in the 2004-05 biennium. And that, said Mr. Wodele, means the new governor and legislators will face more tough choices over how to finance K-12 education when the legislature convenes next year.
"It's not going to be an easy legislative session. That $3.2 billion is going to be staring each and every one of them ... in the face," he warned. "It's going to be right in their lap come January."
According to the Minnesota School Boards Association, about two-thirds of the state's 343 districts trimmed their spending for this fiscal year. Not only did they reduce transportation services, but they also increased class sizes, jacked up student fees for extracurricular activities, slashed special programs on the district and school levels, and even closed schools.
Many districts are faced with declining enrollments as well, which means less state funding, added Judy Farmer, the president of the school boards' group.
Meanwhile, an estimated 60 or so Minnesota districts will hold levy referendums in November in an attempt to make up for the lack of additional state funds.
Ms. Farmer added that this year's cuts are the second in a row for some districts. "The compound effect of these two years of really severe budget cuts," she said, "certainly have been felt by students and families."
As further evidence that the school funding problems are getting increasingly serious, others note that the teachers' strike that began Sept. 27 in the 1,700-student International Falls school district was the state's first in 10 years.
Jean Jordan, the principal of Lakeview Elementary School in Albert Lea, worries that her district's budget crunch means attendance will drop right along with the temperature this winter.
The 3,900-student district cut $1.1 million—its largest cut in 10 years—and spent $600,000 from reserves to balance its $28 million spending plan for the current budget year.
To shore up funding, the district has made transportation cuts. Those cuts have left scores of elementary school students trudging up to two miles to school, unless parents choose to pay about $30 per student monthly for busing children who live within that 2-mile distance from their schools.
"[It's] pretty severe," Superintendent David Prescott said about the new busing rule. "Minnesota winters get pretty cold, and to have a 1st grader walking to school is not a good idea."
In Minneapolis and St. Paul, the state's largest districts, cuts have been just as sharp.
The 45,000-student St. Paul schools cut $20 million to bring its current budget to $367 million this year, district officials said.
The 49,000-student Minneapolis district cut $31 million from its $500 million budget, and is in the process of possibly cutting $5 million more, said David Jennings, the district's chief operating officer.
Minneapolis avoided classroom cuts as much as possible by reducing staff positions in administrative departments and eliminating certain district programs.
It also ended nonessential operations, such as print and supply shops run by the district.
Anoka-Hennepin, another large Minnesota district hit hard by cuts, slapped an $80 increase on the fee students must pay for each extracurricular activity, such as football, speech, and band, resulting in a decline in participation in some activities, said schools spokeswoman Mary Olson.
The district cut about $10.1 million , reducing its budget to $307 million. It also changed its busing rules so that nearly half the 37,000 students who used to ride the bus for free in the 41,500-student district no longer have that option, Ms. Olson said.
School administrators are never eager to cut back on services to students. But budget problems in Minnesota and elsewhere in the country come at a particularly difficult time, said Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.
"There's so much pressure on now to improve test scores and student achievement that the last thing you're going to do is go to the classroom," he said.
That has already happened to Samantha Sell in Monticello, however.
It's not just the increased sports fees that have Ms. Leitch-Sell's daughter worried. She also has been unable to take some college-preparatory courses, including Advanced Placement chemistry, because they were cut from the curriculum or the school offered only one section, causing scheduling conflicts.
Another college-prep class that she is taking, in humanities, has nearly doubled in size, from about 30 to 58 students.
As for the increased sports fee, it too has taken its toll on classmates, the Monticello High School senior said. Many of them, she said, have decided that playing sports as a way to stay physically fit is just too expensive.
She added: "They figure they might as well buy a health-club membership."
Vol. 22, Issue 6, Pages 16-17