In White Bear Lake K-12 schools are bright spot in budget crisisby Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
School leaders across Minnesota are trying to figure out how state government's deficit will affect their own local budgets. But some districts are faring better than others. White Bear Lake has no plans for layoffs or school closings. But that's not to say it's completely avoided painful cuts -- it did so a few years ago, but the district is now looking for ways to expand.
White Bear Lake, Minn. — Melissa Richards took a late lunch the other day to see her daughter, Allie, who was thoroughly drenched.
"Last week she wouldn't even get in the pool, and she's dunking her head this week," noted Richards.
Allie was splashing around with fellow first graders from Birch Lake Elementary. But Birch Lake doesn't have a pool. None of the White Bear Lake schools do, so the district has partnered with the YMCA to use its facility.
"In this district, water safety's never been a part of their curriculum," said the Y's Shane Hoefer. "As people's resources are being stretched ever more thin, and as poverty levels have increased, you see a disparity in those who can afford swimming and those who can't."
The students only get a few lessons. But it's enough for Melissa Richards to see a change in her daughter.
"Even just learning to get in the water, that's a bonus. Because we've tried for years."
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 isn't ignoring the potential for trouble.
"We're cautiously optimistic about the next two years, or three years," said Lovett. "But recognize that unless things improve at the state and national level, we'll have some difficult choices ahead of us."
White Bear 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' pocketbooks.
The partnerships with community groups help save money because they keep the district from needing to, say, build a swimming pool.
But it hasn't always been fast times at White Bear High.
"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," said Blaesing. "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, says 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," said Croonquist.
Most other districts in Croonquist's survey expect seven-figure shortfalls.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty said in his State of the State speech that he'll propose more funding for schools that show the best performance. But he's offered no details on how to measure performance.
Schools are also looking past their own finances, and in at least one way, White Bear schools mirror a state trend.
The distribution of free and reduced lunches is the most commonly used statistic to measure poverty in schools. The number of White Bear Lake students who receive free or reduced lunch has grown by 800 over the past six years. Put another way, nearly one-third of White Bear's students, 28 percent, are now on free and reduced lunch.
Superintendent Michael Lovett recalls chatting with a fourth grader recently, who just kept listing all the things she loved about school.
"I said, 'So it sounds like things are going pretty well for you.' And she said, 'Well, except at home. My mom said we have to get rid of one of our cats. Mom said we're almost out of cat food ... and when that's done, that's all there is. So we're going to have to get rid of one of our cats.'"
Minnesota's total K-12 enrollment has fallen by 12,000 students during the past six years. Yet the number of kids on free and reduced lunch is up by nearly 32,000.
More kids in poverty suggests more kids whose families can't afford piano lessons, for example. All the more reason why superintendent Michael Lovett's goals are twofold -- find more partnerships, but also keep up a full-court press in the effort to attract students.
That won't keep any families from giving up their cats, but it should help prevent any huge drop-off in state money tied to enrollment.
- All Things Considered, 01/21/2009, 5:50 p.m.