If the budget cuts proposed by Gov. Jesse Ventura are approved, state general education aid will be reduced $481 for each Pillager student while most school districts will experience only a $20 per student cut. General education aid is used to pay for operating costs such as salaries, utilities, transportation and supplies.
This article is written to illustrate the Pillager School; however, it is written on behalf of many area schools. You may interchange the $481 in the above paragraph with the following amounts and school districts: Pequot Lakes $413, Crosby-Ironton $348, Remer-Longville $499, Onamia $689, Pine River-Backus $502, Hill City $667, Walker-Hackensack-Akeley $455, Cass Lake-Bena $320, Menahga $434, area Charter Schools $412, Edina $12, Wayzata $9, Eden Prairie $7, Osseo $9. The information in this paragraph is provided by the state of Minnesota. It may be found on the Children, Families and Learning web site.
Last June, the Minnesota Legislature adopted and the governor signed into law an education funding bill that set the per student funding amounts for the 2001-2002 and 2002-2003 school years. In addition to giving all school districts in Minnesota a per pupil funding increase, the Legislature passed into law an additional $415 per student to Pillager and 36 other districts that do not have excess operating referendums. The $415 increase is scheduled to be received beginning with the 2002-2003 school year.
The purpose of the $415 increase is to help close a growing funding gap between the state's most highly and poorly funded school districts. Of the 343 Minnesota school districts, Pillager ranks 299 at $4,778 per student in general education revenue for the current school year. Kittson Central in northwestern Minnesota ranks first in the state at $7,765. The average student in Minnesota is supported with $5,206 in general education revenue. Although the increase of $415 will not bring Pillager student funding to the state average, it will make the state's investment in our students much closer to that level.
Because of the recession, the state of Minnesota anticipates a funding shortage of approximately $2 billion for the current biennium. On Jan. 10, Gov. Ventura unveiled a solution to the budget shortfall that would allow most school districts to escape with a reduction of only approximately $20 per student in state aid. Under the governor's budget proposal, the increase for Pillager and the other 36 districts that had been promised the $415 increase for the next school year is $58. Rather than providing the $415 increase as the current law states, legislation would cut the increase by $357 to $58. The $357 mentioned here is only a part of the $481 mentioned in the first paragraph.
Last year, the Legislature and governor passed legislation that requires school district budgets to be "structurally" balanced so that the costs of labor contracts and other expenses do not exceed promised resources from the state. The Pillager Board of Education and staff spent many hours determining the salary and fringe benefits that could be afforded within the resources provided by the state and concluded a teacher contract settlement. While the district is "structurally" balanced under current laws, a cut of $481 per student proposed by the governor would result in a decrease in state aid of $355,000 for next school year.
Under these circumstances, the district would be faced with a choice of going into debt or eliminating at least six of its 53 teaching positions and increasing the cost of participation in extra-curricular activities drastically. Unfortunately for students, cutting teachers would increase class sizes significantly; and they would lose the services of many highly talented and motivated teachers whom they have come to know both in the classroom and in the community.
The dollar amounts stated above in second paragraph are 100 percent state aid and no local levy. People living in all areas of the state pay tax dollars into the state. However not all areas receive an equal share back. Students living in the Central Lakes area are particularly hard hit by the governor's proposal. I would estimate that this would be a reduction of at least $10,000,000 to schools in the Central Lakes area. These dollars would be a significant infusion into the local economy. Local businesses and seasonal property landowners found a new category on their property tax forms this fall. It was called the "state general tax." This money flowed to the state of Minnesota. In many cases it was a significant increase to education. The governor's proposal keeps a greater share of these dollars in the metro area.
The districts that are hit the hardest under the governor's proposal are those districts that had the most fiscally prudent school districts. This is due to the fact that the state has taken over all of the funding for general education, and those school districts did not have an operating levy in place.
In his Budget Shortfall Message on Jan. 10, Gov. Jesse Ventura said, "In the interest of not directly hurting the students, we will not reduce the basic per pupil funding in the state general education formula." Although this proclamation may ring true for many students in our state, it most certainly does not for Pillager students and other like them in Minnesota's most poorly funded school districts. As citizens of Minnesota, we must take the steps necessary to inform our elected officials that balancing the state budget on the backs of our most poorly funded students is wrong!
If the Legislature is unsuccessful in maintaining the funding in current law, the local school boards will need to approach local citizens for an operating levy. A local operating levy is a combination of state and local funds. The dollars Gov. Ventura is proposing to cut all come to the local districts from the state. From taxes you have already paid. The choice is yours. Why should the students living in the school districts with the highest personal incomes receive the smallest cuts?
(Johnson is superintendent of the Pillager School District.)
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