WHITE BEAR LAKE, Minn. - While school districts across Minnesota are dealing with tight budgets, White Bear Lake has no plans for layoffs or school closings.

The suburban east metro district made some cuts a few years ago, but White Bear Lake is now looking for ways to expand.

While some Minnesota schools look for programs to cut, White Bear Lake has been slowly adding back. The district is avoiding cuts for now, but Superintendent Michael Lovett says there's still the potential for trouble.

"We're cautiously optimistic about the next two years, or three years," Lovett told Minnesota Public Radio News. "But recognize that unless things improve at the state and national level, we'll have some difficult choices ahead of us."

White Bear Lake has two reasons for its decent budget outlook: Voters approved a tax levy last year and enrollment has stayed relatively steady. State funding is based on enrollment, so a big dip in student numbers hits districts' budgets.

None of the White Bear Lake schools has a swimming pool, so the district has partnered with the YMCA to use its facility. The partnerships with community groups help save money because they keep the district from needing to build a swimming pool, for example.

But White Bear Lake has known painful budget cuts in the past.

"White Bear has been there and done that," said Ted Blaesing, who was White Bear's superintendent until his retirement last year.

"There were many years with very deep, draconian reductions in the budget," Blaesing said. "And most importantly, I think, was the tremendous escalation in class sizes. We went from low 20s to mid-to-upper 30s in some cases, and in the high school, low 40s."

Arts and music also experienced big cuts, which are only now starting to come back.

Fourth-grader Owen Anderson is in a piano class that is a result of another partnership. Instructors from the MacPhail Center for Music are now teaching piano to White Bear Lake students.

"I love it," said Richard Tostenson, one of the instructors. "It's exciting because these kids never had piano before, and they get to make beautiful sounds — hopefully, beautiful sounds. And their eyes light up and they're very excited about the whole program."

But Scott Croonquist, with the Association of Metro School Districts, said White Bear is the exception to the rule.

Croonquist's group recently surveyed three dozen districts and asked what their local shortfalls would be, even if the state kept funding at the same levels. White Bear was one of just five to say it won't have a deficit, in part because it passed its levy.

"The reality is these referenda are short-term solutions, and if the state doesn't fulfill its obligation within the next couple years, White Bear Lake will be in same situation as these other districts facing serious budget deficits," Croonquist said.

In his State of the State speech, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said that he'll propose more funding for schools that show the best performance. But he's offered no details on how to measure performance.


Information from: Minnesota Public Radio News, http://www.mpr.org