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Editorial — Schools are running out of money, options

Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren has an interesting decision to make.

A school district in west-central Minnesota has approved a plan that, to save heating fuel and reduce busing costs, would shorten the school week to four days. The district, known as MACCRAY, includes the towns of Maynard, Clara City and Raymond. It has about 700 students spread over 350 square miles and was $52,000 over budget for fuel through March.

Removing Monday from the school week would save the district about $65,000 per year.

We hope Seagren sees this plan for what it is: a desperate cry for help from small, rural schools. They’ve run out of "fat" to trim and are now facing impossible decisions that will short-change students, their families and Minnesota’s future.

MACCRAY plans to add one hour to the school day Tuesday through Friday, which would mean children, many of whom face lengthy bus rides already, would be forced to get up earlier and get home later. That’s not conducive to academic success, and neither is the loss of 23 days from the school calendar.

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Meanwhile, working parents would have to adjust their schedules or pay for child care on Mondays.

Seagren should nix this idea immediately. But more importantly, the Legislature must find a way to equalize the flow of money to Minnesota’s schools, because the pain is becoming real. Consider:

  • In Grand Meadow, cost-cutting measures have eliminated golf, baseball and softball from the varsity sports list.
  • In Brainerd, 17 of 29 varsity sports were on the chopping block until the community stepped in and formed a non-profit organization to keep teams alive.
  • In Pine Island, elementary school principal Todd Kieffer will see his job eliminated after the current school year, as will choir director Michael Anderson.
  • At St. Cloud Apollo High School, there aren’t enough math textbooks to go around, and no money to buy new ones, so students aren’t allowed to take books home to study.

On Tuesday, Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed the omnibus K-12 education bill, which wasn’t a surprise. He wasn’t ready to receive the plan apart from an overall budget agreement, and we agree with his contention that the bill he was sent contained too many unfunded mandates. A proposal to require students to stay in school until their 18th birthday sounds nice, but without money for truant officers or expanded programs to keep at-risk students interested in school, it’s largely symbolic.
Our schools don’t need symbolism — they need fuel for buses. They need heating oil. The need textbooks, coaches, music teachers and principals.

They need doors that are open five days each week.

And the clock is ticking in St. Paul. If the Legislature and our governor muck this one up, Minnesota’s kids will pay the price.

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