Schools already cutting budgets, ahead of state actionby Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
The state's huge budget deficit has schools across Minnesota worried that not even they will be safe from cuts. But schools aren't necessarily waiting for the state's actions to make their own cuts at the local level. That's because many districts are facing budget shortfalls, even before you factor in what the state does.
St. Paul, Minn. — Politicians sometimes joke during tough budget times that they'd hold a bake sale, if it would help the money situation.
But that was no joke a few weeks ago in the Perham-Dent School District, in west central Minnesota. That's where sixth grader Dani Nelson and three friends had a conversation the morning after Election Day.
"Our school was in need of $500,000 and of course we couldn't make up all that money but we could definitely help a little bit," said Nelson, in an interview.
The four students at Prairie Wind Middle School organized a bake sale because the district had just lost a school levy vote by a nearly two-to-one margin.
"We were talking about it that morning and talking about what teachers are going to get cut and what's going to get cuts, the sports," Nelson added. "I think everyone was just a little bummed out because it wouldn't be the same anymore."
A two day bake sale - which offered breads, muffins, cupcakes, cookies, salsas and jams - netted $558.
That's hardly enough to solve any problems, but Superintendent Tamara Uselman says she thinks the bake sale helped finally put the district's dire situation into perspective for some people. No one's waiting for state cuts in Perham-Dent - the cutting is well underway.
"We've done $2 million in reductions in the past four years, so anywhere where there might have been some cushion is gone," said Uselman. "[We're] cutting good support staff. These are good people - they are not overpaid to begin with, and when you have to release them, very,very sad, I would say."
Dent Elementary School will close after this year, but there was some talk of closing it mid-year to save even more. The band program is gone. Only high schoolers have art class now, and the librarians are part-time.
The district has lost enrollment, so some adjustment was needed to serve fewer students. But when the levy failed, the district had to find $300,000 more to cut from this year's budget and another $500,000 for next year's. And that's without any state cuts, which could raise Perham-Dent's local shortfall to $1 million out of a $15 million budget.
"We've gone through our budget enough to realize if we have the lights off in the commons during the day, we'll save $1,000 over a year, so we're down to those kinds of levels."
When asked if the budget cuts were making her district's students dumber, Uselman replied this way.
"Our kids are less rich in their academic experience because of these budget cuts. It's a grievous thought that a kid could not have an art teacher."
A recently-formed group called "More Than Nothing" is now trying to raise private funds for the district.
But Perham-Dent isn't alone. Rochester Schools are considering a four-day week to save money. St. Paul has frozen hiring. And a survey of metro area school districts this week found 31 who will have a deficit of at least $400,000, and that's if the state keeps funding at the same levels.
In fact, five of those districts face shortfalls of at least $10 million: Anoka-Hennepin ($17 million), Minneapolis ($28 million), St. Paul ($15 million), Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan ($18 million), and South Washington County ($10 million).
"You know you can just see trouble every single way you look," noted Charlie Kyte, who heads the Minnesota School Administrators' Association and will spend a lot of time at the Capitol in coming months, lobbying for schools.
"If [lawmakers] raise taxes - income taxes and sales taxes - and you cut programs, I'm still not sure you can close that $5 to $6 billion gap," added Kyte. "So, I'm going to go into the legislative session, fighting like crazy to get funding for K-12 education, but it's going to be a tough, tough battle."
Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said the budget he'll proposes for next year will be balanced and will prioritize K-12 education, but that doesn't mean schools are safe from cuts.
"We've got this amount of money to spend, now let's talk about in priority order how we're going to spend it," said Pawlenty, during a Dec. 4 news conference. "And you see a lot of great speeches from politicians saying 'this is my number one priority.' Well, now they're going to have a chance to put their money where their mouth is."
A more pressing matter is what to do about a nearly $500 million shortfall for the rest of the state's current budget, which runs through June.
And that means even districts that have already started making cuts might have to come back in a few months and make more - regardless of how many bake sales they hold between now and then.
- Morning Edition, 12/18/2008, 6:55 a.m.