By JERRY HANSEN
A school board’s primary commitment is to provide students with a quality education that prepares them to compete for good jobs and for life after graduation. Since 2004, due to insufficient state funding and failure of multiple local operating levies, the Milaca School Board has implemented over $2.6 million dollars in budget cuts.
Reductions are a normal and expected response to a failed levy. Milaca Schools have been reducing expenditures, increasing revenue and “living within its means.” This years’ audit shows the school district spent $1.1 million dollars less in 2010-11, while receiving $800,000 less in revenue than it did five years ago.
In previous years, the school board responded to failed levies by reducing staff, programs and opportunities for students. Some of those reductions may seem trivial because of the savings generated. For example, in 2010 the pay phone was removed to save $450 per year.
Other cuts were much more substantial with a greater impact on children and learning, such as the reduction of five elementary teachers in 2009. While this saved over $200,000 per year, the caveat is that it also increased class size; just as the $108,000 in savings achieved in 2010 by not hiring additional teachers increased first-grade class sizes from 15-20 percent. The cuts were made not in retaliation for failed levies, but in response to the lack of funding resulting from a failed levy.
This year is no different, except that reductions in programs and increases in revenue will be implemented over a few years. This plan is based on five assumptions:
1) The last five operating levies have failed, indicating a lack of public support for increased funding.
2) If current revenues and expenditures remain the same, the District will be in statutory operating debt by the 2016-17 school year.
3) Continued changes need to be made that increase revenue and decrease expenditures over the next few years.
4) Changes need to start with those that have the least impact on classroom instruction and progress to those with the greatest impact on student learning.
5) Changes need to occur over a few years to reduce large-scale disruption and loss of students due to open enrollment.
With these assumptions, the school board is implementing budget changes based on the impact they will have on students, learning and classroom activities. Initial changes will impact groups and organizations that use district facilities, but do not directly impact student achievement.
This is why facility use, activity, parking and admission fees should be increased first, instead of reducing the staff that serve your children. In addition to increased fees, the building will close earlier in the evening to reduce cleaning, damage, maintenance, vandalism and supervision costs.
Like most budget tightening measures, these will cause discomfort and individual groups will request to be an exception. This is to be expected. It is very difficult to understand what is happening when you are deep within the organization being impacted, and even more difficult to understand the farther you are removed.
While individuals may not agree on specific decisions, they will not be alone as future reductions in staff and student programs occur. The reality is the future holds more reductions in staff and student programs until there is additional revenue available, either from state funding or from a community approved levy.
Last year, Milaca ranked 309 out of 336 Minnesota school districts in per pupil funding. Milaca is also one of the districts with the least per pupil expenditures. Part of the reason is because our school district has low property values when compared to other districts. Because of low property value, Milaca taxpayers pay 2 to 4 times more for an operating levy than those living in districts that have higher property values. In those districts, taxpayers pay ½ to ¼ as much for the same amount of money to educate their children.
Property value should not be the reason Milaca students do not have the same educational opportunities as students in other districts. This is a fundamental change that has to be made, if children across the State are to receive the fair and equitable education guaranteed in our State Constitution. Contact your representatives in St. Paul to help make this change.
Who are your Representatives in St. Paul?
Rep. Sondra Erickson
509 State Office Building
100 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
St. Paul, MN 55155
Sen. David Brown
75 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Capitol Building, Room 205
St. Paul, MN 55155
Editor’s note: Jerry Hansen is the superintendent of Milaca Public Schools. The educator’s column is featured twice a month in the Times.