The Reckoning

Money woes test school quality

  • Article by: CURT BROWN and KELLY SMITH , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: March 22, 2011 - 2:40 PM

With nearly half the state budget funding education, opportunities are drying up amid looming deficit.

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Students in Stacey Skinner’s science class at St. Paul Central High School examined a sheep brain as part of their study of brain anatomy. Due to budget cuts and increased costs, four to six students now study each brain; in the past two would share each brain

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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Mindy Lattimore got nothing but blank stares from her students when she brought her Class of '96 letter jacket to school. Lattimore graduated 15 years ago and since then six of the activities that she earned patches for, including marching band and drama club, have ceased to exist at North Branch High, in one of Minnesota's hardest-hit school districts.

The programs have gone away one by one as voters turned down seven straight referendums aimed at easing the money crunch along the Sunrise River 45 miles north of the Twin Cities. Lattimore's old school on Main Street is being demolished. The school week for 3,500 students was slashed to four days. But to Lattimore, nothing sums up the impact of the $13 million in budget cuts the district has endured over the past eight years better than the "gut-wrenching'' experience of trying to explain her letter jacket to her English students earlier this school year.

"Instead of having more for the next generation, we live in a society where it's suddenly OK to have less," she said.

Education funding makes up nearly half of the state budget that is facing a $6 billion projected shortfall, but school districts such as North Branch argue they've already cut to the bone.

"We're at a time now where there are no more escape hatches," said Brad Lundell, director of Schools for Equity in Education, a group of 58 districts threatening to sue the state if funding inequities aren't fixed this year.

Poorer districts in other states, such as Kansas, have gone to court and won. Minnesota's system survived a legal challenge nearly 20 years ago during easier budgetary times. But that 1993 state Supreme Court ruling also said that every student has a fundamental right to equal education. But how is that possible when the money's dried up?

The answer to that question will directly affect the state's more than 830,000 students and 52,000 teachers.

A new cast of political players will decide the issue. Gov. Mark Dayton taught school 40 years ago and has vowed to stand between the ax and education funding. But the Republican takeover makes the Legislature less beholden to the once-powerful 70,000-member teachers' union, which historically endorses DFLers.

U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who sits on the House Education Committee, calls it "a very, very tough climate to increase funding on anything anywhere."

A two-tiered system

Minnesota is becoming an increasingly two-tiered education system. Ninety percent of districts have received voter support for higher school levies, while others, such as North Branch, struggle in part because they lack businesses to augment their property tax base. That puts more of the burden on individual property taxpayers, who keep voting no to increased taxes.

"Some districts are going up to the plate with big 40-ounce bats," Lundell said, "while other districts often times have that little souvenir bat."

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, the new chairman of the House Education Finance Committee, says Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth have cashed in on their political power for 30 years to get more generous funding.

"This was set up to suck money from one part of the state and drop it into another," Garofalo said. "A place like North Branch is getting ripped off by the school funding formula, paying into a system and the money is not coming back to their students. They're getting their clocks cleaned from a state that is not funding education in a fair and equitable manner. It's going to change this year."

Phil Krinkie, president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, isn't so sure that lawmakers are up for the fight. He says education spending has virtually doubled the last decade even though the number of students is about the same.

"They haven't really looked under the hood and asked what's going on," said Krinkie, who spent 16 years as a legislator. "If there's one thing that's not sustainable, it's continuing to fund K-12 under the current system."

Krinkie suggests all teachers should be made state employees and school district boundaries redrawn to save money.

"In order to truly wrestle this issue to the ground," he said, "they have to spend some real time finding out what the cost drivers are in the system and whether they can and should be changed."

'Patch and pray'

North Branch is a special case, but other districts are hurting, too. Minnesota ranked fifth in student funding in 1970 but now sits at 36th in a recent school quality national report.

"We've been slipping for a while," said Brenda Cassellius, the new education commissioner. "I don't think that's what Minnesotans want."

• In Willmar, students share and check out textbooks instead of bringing them home.

• In Rochester, some school areas are cleaned only once a week and some staffers bring blankets because of low thrmostats.

• In Two Harbors, the school week was cut to four days, staff took two-year salary freezes and leaders put off replacing buses that rack up 450,000 miles a year in the state's most spread-out district.

• In Perham, a roof leaks directly onto the school secretary's desk. Says Superintendent Tamara Uselman: "Patch and go and pray for the best."

At St. Paul Central High School, sophomore Emma Grundhauser hustles to English class out of necessity.

"You have to fight to get there first because there are not enough desks for everyone to fit in," said Grundhauser.

Last year, Grundhauser had to elbow her way through biology class, where students crowded around tiny sheep brains during dissections.

"We used to have two kids to a brain, now we four," said Grunhauser's teacher, Kathy Vadnais. In 20 years of teaching, she's seen her class sizes swell from 25 kids to more than 40 and biology has been made a graduation requirement.

She relies on the generosity of parents and grants to offset the cost of providing brains for the students to dissect. "They say everyone takes biology but they didn't give us the money to hire more teachers," she said.

Before lawmakers can fix education funding, they need to understand it. That means deciphering dozens of funding streams that give rural districts extra money because of sparsity and urban districts money based on poverty, while other pots of money can only finance building issues.

"One of the big problems with the school funding formula is it's so complex no one understands it and that's not an accident," Garofalo said. "If it were transparent, and people knew how they were getting ripped off, they'd come down here and burn the Capitol down."

Basic student funding has remained flat at $5,124 per pupil for the past three years, but lawmakers have used one-time accounting tricks to hold back money from districts.

The state historically gave districts 90 percent of their money at the start of the school year and held back 10 percent until the end. Last year the formula was altered -- the state held back 30 percent until the end of the year to save $1.4 billion. Few expect to see that money again.

"Given the budget numbers out there, I don't see that getting paid back in the foreseeable future," said Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, who teaches high school history.

Kline, the new committee chairman in Congress, is promising to back a plan to increase federal funding of costly special education programs. But it's unclear whether that proposal will go anywhere.

Few expect major cuts in the 9 percent of the state budget that goes to higher education. With colleges touching nearly every legislative district, lawmakers are hesitant to shutter any -- especially with enrollment growing as out-of-work Minnesotans go back to school.

'A vicious cycle'

In North Branch, bulldozers have nearly completed demolishing the Main Street school that was for 80 years a town landmark.

"It's symbolic of the extreme situation we're facing here in North Branch," said Superintendent Deb Henton, who recommended the demolition to save money. "We don't see an end in sight to the destruction to our district."

Some North Branch kids are now attending school in neighboring districts that have five-day weeks and more activities -- taking their $5,124 in per pupil aid with them.

The district just concluded "budget boot camp," with the staff given checklists so they can suggest what should be cut next.

"People are angry and hurt that their things keep getting cut and that they keep getting asked for more money. It's a vicious cycle,'' said Patrick Tepoorten, community relations coordinator.

kelly.smith@startribune.com • 612-673-4141 curt.brown@startribune.com • 612-673-4767

  • about this series

  • In this 2011 series, Star Tribune reporters showed how the budget debate will play out across the state, from small towns to big cities, in the courts, schools, businesses, social services and state government.
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