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Minnesota school districts report large numbers of layoffs

Several Minnesota school districts were forced to cut teachers this year, and superintendents attribute the problem to underfunding at the state level.

Several Minnesota school districts were forced to cut teachers this year, and superintendents attribute the problem to underfunding at the state level.

A Minnesota 2020 survey this past spring showed some districts are laying off as many as 29 percent of teachers in areas such as Wrenshall, and 15 percent in Brainerd and Dawson-Boyd.

The Warren-Alvarado-Oslo School District, which has 450 students, will cut two positions in its staff of 41 licensed teachers, a social worker and a high school instructor.

"We probably would have had to make more cuts if we didn't have so many retirements," Superintendent Bryan Thygeson said of the six teachers who retired this year.

The district, like many others in Minnesota, has a voter-approved operating referendum to make up for the lack of state funds.

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"It's not used for building or things like that," Thygeson said. "It is to operate the system, period."

The Oklee and Plummer school districts also have referendums in place. The districts are not consolidated but do share facilities and other expenses and have a combined total of 350 students. The Plummer site holds elementary classes, and high school is held in Oklee.

"We do have referendums in both districts right now, so the taxpayers are doing their part," said James Guetter, superintendent of both districts. "But the law says it's the state's responsibility to fund us."

The districts together will lose one Title 1 teacher, but not through cuts. The retirement of an elementary teacher forces a Title 1 teacher to take over that position, leaving the Title 1 opening unfilled.

One of the 40 teachers would have been cut, had the elementary teacher not retired, Guetter said. Now, the district will look at other cost savings measures.

"Count the pennies," he said. "They do add up."

Plummer and Oklee are about 14 miles apart, and eight buses are used to get kids to and from the schools. But that number may decrease with increasing fuel costs.

"It's ugly," Guetter said of fuel prices. "It affects parents and the district."

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Climax Public Schools will make no cuts from its staff of 28 teachers this year, according to Superintendent Norm Baumgarn, but did cut the hours of some staff.

"And we are still going to look at cost-saving measures," he added.

The district will look at lunch-program savings and consolidating bus trips. The biggest costs in the district of 156 students are heating and fuel for the buses, Baumgarn said. His goal is to at least maintain the budget to avoid a tax increase.

"I believe and the board believes that we have to run the school and provide those services for the kids," Baumgarn said of the district's programs.

Another Minnesota 2020 survey conducted in December and January found that 66 percent of responding superintendents felt state underinvestment is dragging down the quality of education. More than half of the 321 superintendents responded.

"The state of Minnesota, financially, isn't looking too healthy," said East Grand Forks Public Schools Superintendent David Pace.

East Grand Forks also will not lose any teachers to layoffs this spring, again because of retirements. Some of those positions, however, will not be refilled.

Tom Budge, director of curriculum instruction, retires this year, and because of rising energy and other costs, the district chose not to re-staff the position, Pace said.

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Districts in the state are looking at a one-time, 1 percent funding formula increase for next year, of $51 per pupil. That means East Grand Forks will get about $96,000, but not all at once. The state's funding formula changes frequently, but this past year was 90 percent and 10 percent, meaning 90 percent of state funds come in during the current year, and the rest is held until the following year.

But the one-time increase has to be placed carefully. It's not in the best interests of the districts to put it into programs that will need continuous funding.

"It's kind of short-lived when they only give it to you for one year," Pace said.

Getting creative

"I think what's happened is a lot of schools have to get very creative," Thygeson said.

The Warren-Alvarado-Oslo School District is in the Marshall County Collaborative, which brings all schools in the county together to look at how resources can be brought to the table in the midst of budget crises. Federal grant money comes through the program and is distributed to the districts, Thygeson said.

Drug-Free Communities and the 21st Century Afterschool Grant also can bring in some of the needed money.

"Next year, we'll have $260,000 in competitive federal grants," he said.

Districts also can save money by hiring teachers right out of college, which Thygeson will have to do after the large number of retirements in his district.

"Out of 41 positions, when six of them are leaving, you're able to save money by bringing in teachers with less experience," he said.

Gibson covers education. Reach her at (701) 787-6754; (800) 477-6572, ext. 754; or send e-mail to lgibson@gfherald.com .

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