Brainerd plans to close two schoolsby Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
Nearly three dozen Minnesota school districts are in the midst of making budget cuts after local voters rejected their efforts to raise property taxes last fall.
In one central Minnesota district, school cuts mean big changes for students and parents. The cuts have some lawmakers and education officials pushing for a change in how the state funds education.
Brainerd, Minn. — Weekday mornings are hectic at the Hermerding house on the north side of Brainerd.
"OK girls it's time, turn off the TV," Kathleen Hermerding said as she sent four of her six children out the door to Brainerd's middle school and high school.
Now she's helping her two youngest daughters, a five-year old kindergartener and a seven-year old first grader get dressed.
"I didn't grab ear muffs, you want them?" she asked.
Hermerding and her children head out into the below zero morning chill, snowpants swishing as they walk down the street to Whittier Elementary.
Along the way Hermerding offers up plenty of praise for their neighborhood school.
"This school is the greatest school. It's the true sense of community and neighborhood," Hermerding said. She explained it is going to make it even tougher to say goodbye to Whittier Elementary at the end of the school year.
Whittier, with fewer than 140 students in preschool through 4th grade, was one of two small Brainerd schools scheduled to close. The district needs to cut $5.5 million from its budget, because a school funding referendum failed last November.
Superintendent Jerry Walseth described the budget slashing that's come in the wake of the failed levy.
"I would use words like devastated on behalf of kids. What kids won't have next year we can't ever recoup," Walseth said.
While talk of shutting down two schools has gotten a lot of attention in Brainerd, Walseth said the cuts will mean big changes across the entire district. 90 positions are expected to be eliminated. That includes laying off 57 teachers, resulting in bigger class sizes at all of the district's elementary, middle and high schools.
"This coming fall we'll have quality teachers in the classroom, but there will be significantly fewer," explained Walseth.
Walseth doesn't come down hard on voters for not passing the levy, especially during tough economic times. But he said the district was forced to ask voters for extra money, because of what he said has been inadequate education funding in recent years from the legislature.
Last fall 99 Minnesota school districts went to the voters for more money.
Some say that proved the state is paying for schools the wrong way.
"Funding education the way we're doing it now, on property taxes, is not working," said Paul Koering, a Republican state senator who represents the Brainerd area.
Koering would like to see his fellow lawmakers revamp the state's education funding system.
First he said schools should receive money from a dedicated fund. That would allow school officials to better plan their budgets.
"So that school boards, when they are making these budgetary decisions they know how much money they're going to have to work with right up front, rather than waiting for the legislature to bicker and fight and wait until the final days of the legislative session to really make a decision that should've been done a long time before that," Koering said.
The Minnesota School Boards Association agreed with Koering that the system needed to be fixed. But in the near term the group's lobbyist, Grace Schwab, wants an emergency increase in school funding of one to two percent.
But Schwab knows that in the wake of the I-35W bridge collapse, transportation funding is likely to be a priority. And she said in a slowing economy, the state's February revenue forecast could put a damper on funding increases, and may even mean cuts.
"If the next forecast comes and we're looking at being a billion dollars in the hole we will be fortunate to hold on to what we presently have," Schwab said.
In a recent speech to Schwab's group, Gov. Tim Pawlenty told educators not to expect any extra funding this year because lawmakers need to first deal with the state's projected 373 million dollar deficit.
But Pawlenty also told the group he thinks the state's education funding system may indeed be broken.
Education officials worry that with everything on their plate, Minnesota lawmakers won't have time to come up with a fix this legislative session.
- All Things Considered, 01/30/2008, 5:20 p.m.