On Aug. 23, the Brainerd School Board approved a two-part operating levy to be put before registered voters on Nov. 8. Question No. 1 seeks a 10-year renewal of the district’s current $199 per student operating levy. Question No. 2 seeks voter approval of an additional $200 per student five-year operating levy with no inflationary year-over-year increase.
In coming to this decision, the school board weighed the levy amount the district needs with a clear understanding of the economic realities faced by our community members. When a decision was reached, the board communicated a strong belief that education is the key to our children’s future and that the operating levy funds will help us stabilize and secure our system to best serve our students.
Why $399? In short, $399 provides a balanced approach for maintaining our district’s quality of education after years of cuts. The additional funds will enable the district to maintain reasonable class sizes and stabilize staffing levels. When considering $399 per student, context is important. Currently, 90 percent of Minnesota school districts have operating levies. The state average for a local operating levy is $936 per student. The Central Lakes Conference average is $434. The current public education funding formula continues to push more of the funding burden to the local level so the “haves” have more and the “have nots” have less.
Even more challenging is that the fact that 30 percent of the properties in the Brainerd School District are deemed exempt from operating levy taxation because they are identified as seasonal/recreational. District administrators have spent numerous hours meeting with and communicating with state officials to change this but it has yet to happen.
In recent listening sessions and visits to other community groups, a significant representation of our community urged us to maintain fiscal responsibility but not lose our place as a leader with excellent results. With regard to fiscal responsibility, Since 2007, the citizens-based Community Budget Committee has worked to study, understand, and make recommendations regarding our budget. As one committee member put it, the district’s budget was “scrubbed” so we are more transparent, more efficient, and more careful than we have ever been.
Since the 2007 defeat of our most recent operating levy effort, the district has implemented more than $5 million in budget reductions including the closing of two elementary schools, reductions to transportation, increases to class sizes, and huge cuts to academic and support programs. From the 2007-2008 school year until now — even after the temporary stimulus improvements — we still maintain fewer staff in administration, teachers, custodians, and secretaries.
But we cannot lose sight of what lies at the root of our efforts — our students. Like other investments, we realize our community has every right to expect — actually demand — a tangible return on their investment. In the context of public education, we must view this return on investment in terms of student academic achievement, program accomplishments, and the impact high-quality schools have on our community as a whole. Yet while the rigor and expectations continued to be raised at the state and local levels, we are seeing more and more students with significant academic challenges. Doing more with less does not mean we ignore our obligation to ensure that every student lives up to his or her academic potential.
District staff have never worked harder and our students continue to achieve great results as illustrated by our ACT scores, our science MCA results, our early literacy results, our workforce development partnerships, and our extracurricular and athletic successes. But we can’t continue this excellence in an era of continuous cuts that have started to deteriorate some of the programs and services that define the education of our community’s children.
STEVE RAZIDLO is superintendent of the Brainerd School District.