Paynesville Press - March 6, 2002

Community Perspective

Wake up, Minnesota!

By Melissa Andrie

Due to budget cuts, the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off. Minnesota: the State of Education. The timeless argument continues: Do our schools receive adequate funding?

The facts have been twisted around so many times it is practically impossible to discover the truth. Yet this is exactly what is pertinent. This truth needs to be revealed, because our futures are at stake.

As with all controversial issues, there has been a lot of debate about this crisis, but the bottom line is that school funding growth does not support inflationary increases and mandated programs.

An excellent example is the expansion of special education services. Schools are required by law to provide special education services to any student in need of them, even if it requires hiring a full-time aide to be with a single student or busing a student to another district where they can receive the help that they need.

Yet in the past year, state revenue has covered under two-thirds of the special education costs that they are mandating, and the federal government has not paid its 40 percent of costs for special education, instead paying around 11 percent. Therefore, in the fiscal year 1999, Minnesota school districts were forced to use $320 million from general education funds to cover special education costs.

Although it is important to give these students the opportunities they deserve, when their services are being subsidized with enormous amounts of money from general education funds across the state, the level of education and services offered to other students is dramatically decreased.

This is a very unfortunate effect that needs to be addressed. As Sen. Paul Wellstone said, "At the same time 181 districts in Minnesota have been forced to go to taxpayers to increase money for education, the federal government is withholding millions owed to those districts. At the same time, our states and districts are forced to cut key education programs, we are saying, with your larger class size and your reduced pre-kindergarten and your eliminated after-school programs, you must do better."

Our Governor, Jesse Ventura, during the Dec. 14 broadcast of his weekly radio show, commented that since the 1975-76 school year administrative assistants and nonclassroom professionals nearly doubled, while over the same time period enrollment declined. However, as defined by the Department of Children, Families, and Learning, "administrative personnel includes various types of assistants and aides."

In other words, the real increase in administration comes from the added assistants that are hired to teach special needs students. If Governor Ventura would do a little research, instead of suggesting administrative cuts, he would realize that the administration increases are in the aides that are required by federal and state laws.

At the same time that administration is being attacked, there is superintendent Carol Johnson, who returned a $30,000 raise she received to the Minneapolis School District. She would be underpaid, even with the raise, but that didn't deter her gesture.

Superintendent Jan Witthuhn, of Mounds View, is waiving a raise she would have received, along with the top six members of her administration.

Doug Grow, of the Star Tribune, in an article supporting Johnson, commented on how to earn what she deserves, she would need to go where educators are valued. "That used to be Minnesota."

Schools are not getting enough money to continue supporting programs. When the general education levies, paid for by local taxes, were cut off and the state offset that with an extra $415 into the per-pupil funding, in certain schools funding decreased. Anoka-Hennepin receives $1,000 less per pupil than the metro district average. It all adds up to less money, fewer programs, a reduced education.

Furthermore, now that the state has taken over most school funding, it is a target for more cuts this year. Adding to the lack of funding is the issue of declining enrollment across the state. In the 1999-00 school year, enrollment in public schools decreased for the first time in 15 years. With school funding per-pupil based, this means less money for schools.

This difficulty is not impacting schools evenly, so while some districts are virtually unaffected, others are left floundering. Jesse Ventura has been quoted saying, "I've come to the conclusion that there is no amount of money that will satisfy the education system. It's not enough. It's not enough. No dollar would be enough."

He claims that teachers are greedy and overpaid, earning an average of $40,000 annually. At the same time, the state is looking at building a new stadium so the Twins don't desert Minnesota, even though professional sports players' salaries surpass teachers' salaries by a large margin.

It seems like when it comes to funding, schools are not even in the ballpark. (Pun intended.)

Then there is the dilemma of rapidly increasing costs. Expenses, like heating and utilities, are increasing at an appalling rate, causing some districts' expenses to double or more in just one year! According to state figures, school funding surpasses inflation by over 14 percent. However, with numerous school costs also surpassing inflation, added to decreasing enrollment, there just isn't enough money for many districts to keep supporting programs they have in place, much less increase services, as they are constantly being asked to do.

For these reasons, 188 school districts, over half in the state, asked voters for levy referendums in November. Of these, 130 passed, giving hope that the support for public education has not totally eroded. But for those 58 districts whose votes failed, the impact is huge.

The levies that did fail may have partly because of the governor and his outspoken opposition. He even mandated that the ballot tell voters that the yes vote meant a property tax increase, while in fact a yes vote still meant a large tax decrease, just less of a decrease.

The two districts, including my home district, which did try for a second vote immediately, were pointedly turned down. Even though Ventura claims to support total local control, the request was denied.

All of this has led straight into the process of cutting programs and services. The school implementing cuts are doing so because of deficits in their general funds ­ the money used for basic education needs. Other programs contain monies that stay independent. They cannot be used to cover costs falling under the general fund.

An example of how this works is: I have a brother and a sister. We all have separate ways of acquiring money and keeping bank accounts to cover our expenditures. My sister can't take money from my account, or my brother's, to buy herself something, just as I cannot take money from either of their accounts. Like that, the money in separate school funds is kept separate.

So schools are starting to debate what can be cut from their general funds. Many districts, like Osseo, Anoka-Hennepin, Spring Lake Park, North St. Paul, and St. Cloud, are all considering closing schools. Blaine High School is considering making activities self-supporting, so the cost of joining the debate team would go from $150 to $1,000!

So we search for solutions. One suggestion I have is totally eliminating the need for schools to conduct votes for referendums. Minnesota counties, townships, and cities do not need to vote to pass tax increases, yet schools are required to.

Another recommendation is furnishing school districts with money to cover the costs of special education. This would contribute enormously to wiping out deficit budgets and improving the lives of all students.

Switching the budgeting calendars would help, too, so that the school boards would be making their budget decisions after the Legislature does, instead of the current process where the school boards create budgets based upon what they think the state will allot them.

I also believe that trust in our school systems needs to be rebuilt.

Kim Solomon, 16, of Osseo, commented, "If education is so important, why are they doing this to us?"

A very legitimate question, but maybe what's more important is: why are we letting them? We can ask why, but are we doing anything about it?

If the governor and Legislature aren't improving this situation, then someone else needs to. Why not you? Write your legislators, hold rallies, and speak up until someone responds. I'm passing the torch, and I hope you take a stand.

We need to start working together to create a solution, because these are the children who, once grown, will be our physicians, nurses, scientists, presidents, businessmen and women, police officers, and inventors. Now is the time to stand up and show that we believe their proper instruction is vital to us and to the entire world. Now is our chance to make a difference, a positive impact on the lives of all!

Minnesota: The State of Education. If something isn't done soon, this tribute, expressing our remarkable commitment to the future, will quietly diminish and pass into oblivion, because we, the people, have determined that it is more important to receive tax rebates than to give our posterity hope. So let's do something.

Standing strong, together searching for the best solution, we can turn this atrocity around.

Andrie is a sophomore at Paynesville Area High School. She researched and wrote this persuasion piece and performs it as an original oratory for the speech team.

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