The Twilight Zone

As age overtakes youth, schools in for heavy lifting

  • Article by: NORMAN DRAPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 23, 2011 - 9:17 AM

The old-age population boom is already shifting the state's budget from schools to health.


Robin Parks, 59, talked to one of her students in the hall before a history lesson in her fifth-grade class at Jefferson Elementary in Blaine. Parks has been teaching for 30 years at Jefferson. “I’m not planning to retire now because I love my job,” she said.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Wrapping up school last spring at Jefferson Elementary in Blaine, Kimberly Pavlovich found herself at the epicenter of Minnesota's old-age population boom. In the six years since she had become Jefferson's principal, the student body plummeted from 749 to 635 and 40 percent of her teaching staff retired.

Behind those stark numbers lurks a larger dilemma: As Minnesota baby boomers age beyond their child-rearing years, who's going to support public schools?

"My concern is how do we keep the aging public involved in our school?" said Pavlovich, this year principal at Johnsville Elementary in Blaine, who hopes to work another decade before she herself retires. "How do we connect with them?"

Demographers project that, by 2030, Minnesota will have more retirees than schoolchildren, something that hasn't happened in at least 60 years. Educators worry that support for public schools will sag as aging Minnesotans -- living on fixed incomes and with fewer connections to the classroom -- shift their attention from schools to health care.

"The amount of hip replacements is quite possibly going to be more than the number of kids graduating from high school," said Krista Paterson, 26, a fifth-grade teacher at Fernbrook Elementary School in Maple Grove. "When the population is such that your kids aren't in school, it's a lot easier to think that other things matter more."

The number of Minnesotans age 60 and older will soar by more than 373,000 between 2010 and 2020, according to the state Demographic Center. The number of school-age kids, meanwhile, will rise by only 88,580.

State economist Tom Stinson said the trend has serious ramifications for schools. "What it will likely mean is that there's going to be more political pressure, more pressure in general, for programs that deal with the problems of aging, and the money that's available is not going to grow as fast," said Stinson. "So, there is going to be increased tension between K-12 spending and spending for aging and health care programs."

Today, K-12 education and health and human services are the two largest categories of state spending, with K-12 taking the larger share. But that's already changing. The share of the state's general fund budget that goes to K-12 education has dropped from 42 to 37 percent over the past six years, with health and human services rising from 26 to 30 percent.

If health care costs continue their upward spiral, state spending on health is forecast to grow more than 8 percent per year over the next 20 to 25 years, leaving little money in the budget for anything else.

New tactics

Such pressures are already forcing Minnesota districts into novel tactics, including luring students from other jurisdictions and broadening their appeal to childless taxpayers.

Minnetonka, for example, has a $40,000 advertising budget. Bloomington built community activity centers onto two schools, and offers memberships to the general public. Columbia Heights schools joined with the city of Columbia Heights last summer to open an activity center built onto the high school, available to students and the general community. A draw for elderly residents? The shuffleboard markings on the floor of one of the center's new gyms.

For St. Francis schools superintendent Edward Saxton, the key is proving that schools are still relevant to everyone.

"When you think about it, why is the high school library closed all summer?" Saxton asked. "A baby boomer might say, 'I'll pay for it because it's the right thing to do, but I'd like to check out a book periodically.'"

Although Minnesota's school-age population actually increased slightly between 2000 and 2008, many of the state's major districts have seen declines. Anoka-Hennepin was down almost 2 percent in that period; Minneapolis and St. Paul were down 28 percent and 12 percent respectively.

Diminishing numbers have forced some of the state's largest districts into painful school closings. Anoka-Hennepin, the state's largest, decided to close eight schools beginning in the current school year.

Since losing students means losing the state funding attached to them, the competition for students will likely heat up. Minnetonka, for example, snapped up 1,245 students from other districts in the 2009-2010 school year. That translates into millions of additional state dollars.

"There will be more efforts by all districts, by all schools, to publicize the qualities they have that they feel might appeal to parents," predicted Minnetonka superintendent Dennis Peterson.

Such efforts don't always find favor with rival districts. Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Association of School Administrators, recalled several years ago when New York Mills schools sent a school bus down the main street of neighboring Perham to pick up students. The Perham superintendent was aghast.

"She said, 'What do we do? Our board members are upset,''' Kyte said. "And I said, 'Well, counterattack.'"

Superintendents face a second challenge: As Minnesota ages, a bulge of teachers and principals nearing retirement could portend a crisis of leadership and experience in some districts.

Mixed effects

Though no rash of additional retirements was imminent at Jefferson Elementary as of last spring, the staff was decidedly gray. "I don't think I have any teachers in their 20s," Pavlovich said. "Maybe one."

If and when a teacher retirement boom hits, its effects will be mixed. It might help some districts because fewer older, higher-paid teachers means lower payroll costs. "We project it will help us because we'll be hiring teachers who don't make as much money," said Ava Nielsen, Minneapolis schools director of total compensation.

Still, more retired teachers means more demands on a pension system some say is dangerously underfunded. It could result in a heavier cost to taxpayers to keep pension plans afloat, said Peggy Ingison, Minneapolis schools chief financial officer.

So far, there's little evidence that an aging population has turned its back on school funding requests. Minneapolis voters in 2008 overwhelmingly passed a district levy request for $60 million a year over eight years, even though fewer than 20 percent of the district's households had school-age children.

Some educators say retirees see quality schools as keys to maintaining their property values. Even in outstate districts, many of which are aging faster than the Twin Cities, voters often approve higher taxes because the schools, with their sports and extracurricular activities, are the very heart of their communities.

Still, said Lee Warne, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Educators Association, many of his 140-member district superintendents fear for the future.

"The financial realities of being older, being on fixed incomes, the increased costs to survive are such that it could change some of those attitudes," Warne said. "But we don't know."

In Bloomington, Verla Olson anticipates that she'll continue voting "yes" on school funding requests even if that jolts her property tax bill. Olson, who retired as a church receptionist two years ago, still has her health, as does her husband, Roger, who still works part time as a Minnesota Department of Transportation research engineer.

"I just believe in the good health of the school system and in education in general," said Olson, whose adult son, Mitchell, attended Bloomington schools. "We plan to stay in our house for some time and our house is close to a school. ... I feel when people are looking at homes, they're looking at the quality of the schools if they're young people."

She's not sure, however, whether everyone nearby shares the same attitude.

"[We have] some neighbors who are older and have some health issues," she said. "I think they would feel less inclined [to support a school district tax request]. They might feel unable to."

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547

  • about this series

  • The Twilight Zone series by Star Tribune reporters explores the ways, good and bad, that an aging population will change Minnesota.
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