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County schools feel financial pinch

Fri, Mar 14th, 2003
Posted in Features

Governor Tim Pawlenty has managed to cut a broad swath across Minnesotas state budget, leaving only one area untouched: K-12 education. This should bring sighs of relief to Fillmore County school districts, but local superintendents find it difficult to look upon the Governors actions as a gift.

Superintendent Mike Moriarity of Mabel-Canton calls the Governors decision a "misnomer," noting that "no increase is basically a cut. Even if you dont cut, inflationary factors will create a cut." Other superintendents echoed Moriaritys statement, adding that expenditures for such items as utilities, insurance, and supplies will increase, creating budget problems.

There are also subtle changes in some areas of school funding that may have gone unnoticed by the public. Lanesboro Schools Superintendent Rick Lamon notes that "if you had excess funds in community education, they took those." Moriarity points out that annual increases in special education, which had been legislated to occur over the next two years, have been frozen.

The freeze comes at a time when every area school faces a trend in declining enrollment. More than one superintendent recognized the trend as statewide, with approximately 80% of school districts in Minnesota facing a smaller kindergarten class than the current graduating senior class. And at a time when no new money comes from the state, "declining enrollment becomes a bigger issue," Fillmore Central Superintendent Myrna Luehmann notes.

The enrollment figures vary from school to school, with Lanesboros student numbers projected to remain the same. However, Lamon quickly points out that this year is the exception. Other districts stand to "lose" a large part of their budgets when this years seniors graduate: Fillmore-Central will lose 32 students; Kingsland 40 students; Mabel-Canton 20 students; and Rushford-Peterson 20 students. While the state will continue to fund students at up to $4601, it doesnt take a math wizard to do the math.

At Fillmore Central, Luehman knows it means $150-180,000 less money to operate with, but the state that promised no cuts in funding is forcing Fillmore Central and other districts to make some tough decisions in the next month. Luehman admits, "Were going to be reducing staff," but acknowledges that then "you get into a whole new issue." Not only do school boards face the problem of deciding where to make the cuts, but they recognize the double-edged sword their decision creates: Minnesota law provides for students to attend other schools through open enrollment, or even attend college through the post-secondary education option. Both options mean more dollars lost.

School administrators recognize that their positions could be even worse. Luehmann is "thankful that we were not hit as hard as health and human services." Rushford-Petersons Superintendent David URen "appreciates" Governor Pawlentys position, adding that it "isnt as positive as we would like, but isnt as negative as it could be."

Administrators find it difficult to look much farther ahead than the upcoming school year to predict the future of the countys schools. Lamon asks, "How do you get people to spend? Were in a strange, strange economy. Weve had a healthy economy for so long, its going to be different."

Kingslands Superintendent Greg Ehresmann recognizes "were not going to be able to look to the state government for help." Anyone looking closely at the Governors plan will see "changing funding" for public schools. Ehresmann predicts "everything will fall on locals," but believes that school districts will continue "reflecting what local people value."

At Fillmore Central, active committees have already been working on better ways to communicate with the public, which coincides with Superintendent Luehmanns belief that "our schools need to market ourselves more."

"Im a very strong believer that a school district is a reflection of the community it serves, Leuhmann said. We will be what the community wants us to be."

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