MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Across Minnesota, communities are holding onto their small schools, but the schools are struggling to survive.
Nearly one-fifth of the state's 340 school districts are fighting combinations of deep enrollment declines, dwindling budget reserves or student flight, according to a Star Tribune analysis.
More and more students are taking the option that open enrollment provides and are bailing out to neighboring districts because they're dissatisfied with the quality of education.
Yet state and local taxpayers keep the money flowing.
Of the more than $9 billion that the state gave to Minnesota school districts in 2001, more than $2 billion went to schools outside the 11-county Twin Cities area. Of that amount, more than $145 million went to the state's smallest districts -- those with fewer than 500 students.
The federal government chipped in more than $150 million to non-metro districts in 2001 -- and more than $11 million to the state's smallest.
The newspaper's analysis identified scores of districts where students and taxpayers may best be served by a new wave of district consolidations. Using a checklist provided by the state to help school districts decide whether to pursue mergers, the Star Tribune found more than 40 districts that fell below recommended enrollment levels in grades K-6 in 2001. Thirty showed dwindling reserve funds. And 23 of the smallest districts are the biggest spenders.
Consolidation is wildly unpopular in small towns and at the State Capitol. But it has the support of the head of the state's teachers union and the acceptance of many students.
"We are going to have to look at where we need to have schools and some type of reorganization," said Judy Schaubach, president of the union, Education Minnesota. She argues that kids in small rural districts are not getting an educational opportunity equal to those in larger districts.
"We have to make sure we don't have a school system in Minnesota that is the haves and the have-nots," she said.
Les Norman, superintendent of the Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial district in south-central Minnesota, agrees. His district, already consolidated once, still struggles for money and students. Recent changes in school funding and land taxes are only widening rural-to-metro disparities, he said.
"Young families, if they want a good education, don't stay in rural areas," he said.
From 2000 to 2001, the number of school districtsdeclared to be in statutory operating debt jumped from 23 to 35, according to the state. That means the districts have negative fund balances greater than 2.5 percent of their general budgets and are under orders to get back in the black.
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