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District Willing to Operate in Red Instead of Cutting

June 24, 2010 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

One school district has said "enough."

Earlier this spring, Crookston Public Schools decided not to follow several rural districts moving to four day school weeks. Rural districts use this tactic to save money by cutting 20 percent on transportation costs. Crookston school officials decided that their district - made up mostly of students who live within Crookston city limits - wouldn't save enough money to make the plan worthwhile.

But the debate sparked a bigger, more philosophical argument: Do we cut again to cope?

"If we're looking at the best way to serve our students, then the answer [to the four-day school week] is no," said Crookston Superintendent Wayne Gilman. Even facing a funding deficit, "we're not willing to give up our all-day every-day kindergarten program or put 30 kids in a classroom built for 20 students. These moves are acts of desperation among school districts because of underfunding."

State aid for schools has dropped an inflation-adjusted 14 percent since 2003 and school districts have cut all they can in services, in administration and in the classroom, said Lee Warne, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association.

"It's a bleak time for school districts," Warne said.

While they are working hard to be financially responsible, Crookston education leaders are also working to be responsible for the quality of education they supply to their students.

In fact, Crookston is willing to go into strategic operating debt to maintain the quality of its education. SOD occurs when a district has a fund balance of less than 2.5 percent of its operating funds - essentially it means the district is broke. The state Department of Education then requires the district to create a plan to get out of SOD within five years. Ultimately, the state could take over the district's books.

Crookston cut $1.1 million from its budget this year. The school board will decide Monday whether to go to the voters in November to ask them to replace a $601-per-student levy with a $1,332-per-student levy. Without the levy, the district will likely be forced to cut $1.5 million next year, he said. Even if voters approve the levy increase, the district won't see any of the money until the 2011-12 school year. Therefore, cuts of more than $1 million will still have to be made next spring, Gilman said.

If the voters don't approve the levy increase, "then the wheels fall off the wagon," Gilman said.

School board chair Nick Nicholas agreed. He said after years of budget cuts, "you get to the point where you don't have a good educational program, and what do you do then?"

The district has already cut family and consumer science to one teacher, business to one teacher, and last year cut one English, one math, one social studies and one science teacher from the high school staff despite steady enrollment. Administration has been cut to the minimum allowed by the state.

Nicholas said the board tried to keep cuts away from the elementary school, where student-to-teacher ratios remain at about 25:1. They also decided to keep high school technical education staffed for students who don't want to go to a four-year college.

If Crookston wants to continue offering its students a good education, avoiding SOD will be very difficult.

"It's impossible to continue these cuts without dismantling our programs, and that's what we're being forced to do," Gilman said. "Some say these cuts make us more efficient, but some things are just worth the investment. Our children are worth the investment."

Perhaps Crookston's leaders are at the crest of a sea change. They are saying, in loud and clear words, that too many cuts have already been made and their students cannot afford any more. Crookston educators are not willing to sacrifice the quality of education for their children.

What will our state leaders do?  Will they disregard Crookston's bold move to protect education quality or will they appreciate the willpower to change course and have the foresight to respond?

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