THEIR OPINION: Rural schools face a dilemma
MANKATO, Minn. -- Two events about a week apart in September highlighted the dilemma facing rural public schools in Minnesota and elsewhere. The events offered some hard-to-take news: Rural taxpayers may not be able to sustain rural schools, and ...
MANKATO, Minn. -- Two events about a week apart in September highlighted the dilemma facing rural public schools in Minnesota and elsewhere.
The events offered some hard-to-take news: Rural taxpayers may not be able to sustain rural schools, and state taxpayers may not want to sustain the current system or have the stomach for a costly new one.
Voters in the St. James (Minn.) School District defeated a $6.79 million referendum that was aimed mostly at expanding classroom space, remodeling cafeterias and making more room for music and agriculture classes. The school's theater students have to dress behind a curtain. Its gymnastics team has to rent a warehouse. Fairmont, Minn., voters finally approved a much pared down referendum after two previous failures. Fairmont's referendum paid for maintenance projects at its four school sites.
About two weeks later, the Minnesota House Education K-12 Finance Committee was holding a hearing in Mankato about a major revamping of Minnesota public school funding that could have a price tag as high as $2.5 billion per year. That additional funding would boost current school funding by about 33 percent.
The task seems daunting given projections that the state may have a deficit of $1 billion by June 30.
The new plan would theoretically take over the local levies passed in scores the last few years, and presumably spread that burden over taxpayers statewide through an income tax increase or broadening of the sales tax. Nothing has been decided. The questions are very tough.
The new plan would increase by about 55 percent the basic formula for school funding, and be adjusted, upwards we assume, for helping small, isolated districts with declining enrollment.
That doesn't sound enough like reform of the current system, where schools with declining enrollment -- mostly rural -- even when they get more state aid, don't have enough to offset the declines in enrollment.
The problem poses enough tough questions that every possibility needs to be explored. We need to determine what is the No. 1 priority in education: making sure every child learns and has high quality teachers, schools and curriculum, or that every community that wants a neighborhood school (bricks and mortar) has one.
The very structure of schools must be examined and challenged. Can online learning bolster distant schools so those students have the same opportunities as those who attend large, metro area mega schools with all the technological accouterments? Should rural schools consolidate into regional schools to save on repairing old schools that aren't worth it?
Our current school funding system requires more money just to maintain the same level of education because of the declining enrollment dilemma. That is a system that cannot be sustained in the future. There's not enough money to go around and there may not be enough public support, or political will.
-- Mankato Free Press