Superintendents call for more funding for rural school districts

Jeff Cagle, Owatonna People’s Press, March 06, 2008 –

BLOOMING PRAIRIE – Asking for more money from taxpayers may be a thorny subject to residents in rural communities like Blooming Prairie.

But with little or no funding coming from the state, superintendents like Barry Olson from Blooming Prairie are saying the current system is broken and needs to be changed.

“It’s very, very hard for rural schools to fund education the way the state is doing it now,” he said.

He’s not alone. According to a survey released Wednesday from Minnesota 2020, a liberal-leaning think tank in St. Paul, superintendents from around the state say the state needs to invest more money in education.

Minnesota 2020 founder and board chairman, Matt Entenza, said the Legislature and Gov. Tim Pawlenty haven’t lived up to their promise of funding public education.

“What this tells us is when we don’t invest in education, we are going to be in a downward spiral in our economy,” Entenza said.

The group surveyed 321 superintendents around the state in December and January. Of those, 171 responded to questions regarding their district, whether they had an operating levy, if there was an election in 2007 and whether they won or lost.

Of the respondents selected, 74 percent came from rural areas in the state. More than half of those schools have fewer than 1,000 students enrolled.

John Fitzgerald, a fellow at Minnesota 2020 and the author of the study, said he wanted to ask superintendents about state funding following the 2007 elections.

Because of the sensitivity of the issue, he granted the superintendents anonymity in the study to allow them to explain the reality of their district and offer any opinions about education funding.

Of the findings, Fitzgerald said superintendents are being forced to go to voters and ask for property tax increases. One of the factors for a decline in funding is due to declining enrollment.

The survey said that 15 respondents ran a levy election in 2007 and lost. Those who lost will cut seven staff members and two-thirds will go back to voters next year or within the next three years.

“This is a life or death urgency to pass a levy unless you live in Edina [and other wealthy communties], where they have all the money they want,” Fitzgerald said.

In Blooming Prairie, voters said no to a new operating levy that would have provided $300,000 per year for 10 years. Funding per pupil would have been raised to $700 from $350, and it would have been equalized to match state inflationary costs.

But next year, Olson said the district will only be getting $80,000 to $90,000 in state revenue expected to come in the 2008-09 school year.

With little money, Olson said the district must cut $300,000 to balance the budget. New revenue may come from staff cuts and rising activity fees.

“Any type of cut in a system like ours hurts education,” Olson said.

Entenza added any cuts in education would damage local economies, especially in rural Minnesota. There’s not only a loss of jobs to one of the biggest employers, it also takes away the quality of education students receive.

Olson said Blooming Prairie is not only a large employer, but an important part of the community.

“[Any cut] affects the community,” he said.

The board is scheduled to meet again at 5 p.m. March 17 in the high school library.

Jeff Cagle can be reached at 444-2378 orĀ jcagle@owatonna.com.

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