Guest Commentary: We’ve done what we can to save moneyI’m in my fourth year on the Lake Superior School District Board. It’s my second year as chairman. I am sensitive to the protests from folks who take issue with paying for various government programs.
By: Leo Babeu, Lake Superior School District Board, Lake County News Chronicle
I’m in my fourth year on the Lake Superior School District Board. It’s my second year as chairman. I am sensitive to the protests from folks who take issue with paying for various government programs. Some people wonder why they should pay more for local education by approving any of the three questions on the district’s mail-in operating levy ballot.
The district has not always been seen as an effective partner with the community. I believe that great strides have been made the past eight years, and that we have our eyes squarely on the goal of improving outcomes for all of our students. The focus is directly on improving the development of core reading and math proficiencies, and presenting relevant and rigorous coursework and opportunities that will help our graduates be prepared to succeed in the workplace, in post-secondary training and college. The district is committed to providing a real benefit for taxpayers.
Residents are now encouraged to engage with school leadership to share your ideas and hold the board accountable for results.
We can help pay for that worthy education now, when no one else – be it the state, the feds, large businesses, and private foundations – has the capacity to fully support us. The proposed operating levy is a local contribution to a future that reflects our community’s values. We can pitch in today to give kids the tools they need to be effective critical thinkers, or we can pay later, when our grandchildren are faced with the loss of community assets and generations of inadequate investments in the networks we depend on. They will wonder what our priorities were.
Inadequate schools create diminishing expectations in communities. Negative impressions of area schools pave the way for a shaky climate for businesses, a loss of living-wage jobs, a decreasing tax base and thus a neglected infrastructure, and a shortage of skilled workers in vital areas, from health care to professional services and the building and manufacturing trades.
Our school district inevitably depends on community support. We are not “too big to fail,” and the proposed locally supported operating levy is not a bailout. It’s an investment in those young adults we expect to renew our communities as we age and pass on the torch of leadership. It is paying the same “dues” that others paid when we were young so that we could succeed in our career pursuits.
There are suggestions the district doesn’t need more money, that we have a surplus, that we can cut more, like any citizen who’s been hit by the economic pain. The truth is that in the past four years, Superintendent Minkkinen and our staff have done a superb job of reversing our fall into statutory operating debt and attaining a modest fund balance. The district’s positive balance is a small buffer to cover unexpected expenses. It cannot sustain current operations when revenue is inadequate to cover essential operating expenses.
The 2007-08 budget adjustments came at great cost: 25 jobs cut, course offerings gone, class sizes up. Critics have insisted the district has many options outside of a levy. All seven board members will agree with that, although we’ll emphasize that almost all of those options are bad ones: further cuts that impact student learning, the core of our mission.
There is no sign that state funding for public education will be adequate or predictable over the next few years. A full recovery in state tax revenue isn’t foreseen until at least 2014. We are at a tipping point.
Without operating levy funds, the district will spend down its fund balance during the coming school year, even if we operate on a four-day week school schedule. If faced with a second year of deficit spending, we will be compelled to make cuts in teaching staff. The district needs to purchase buses, employ support staff, hire excellent teachers and support them through effective professional development and access to tools that help us reach and teach students. These are not commitments we can ignore. These are core responsibilities we must fulfill to serve our students well.
The board has put forward three questions to achieve these goals.
The highest amount requested (Question 1: $550 per student) is only 59 percent of the average operating levy that supports the 96 percent of Minnesota’s K-12 students living in districts with levies. If Question 1 passes, the total school taxes paid by most residents (for comparable taxable market values) will still be less than they were in 1997.
Questions 1 and 2 provide funds to invest in student learning, buy buses, and continue the five-day school week. Question 3, which allows us to purchase curriculum and school buses, doesn’t assure that the board won’t have to initiate a four-day week in order to maintain teachers and courses. The difference cost-wise next year between Question 2 and Question 3, for the owner of a home valued at $100,000, would be $1.71 per month.
These are relatively small costs to us as individuals to maintain a schedule that many families have told us they really value.
Next week I’ll consider what the risks to the quality of education are if the district doesn’t receive more local funding.