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Districts aim for normal year despite tight budgets

Today is the first day of class for most public school students in Minnesota.

For all the recent hand-wringing over the state budget, school leaders from the Canadian border to southern Minnesota want students to know that the school year will be much the same as in previous years.

"They're not going to see anything different in the playground," St. Cloud superintendent Bruce Watkins said. "They're not going to see anything different in the hallways, to speak of."

Although school leaders have bemoaned state cuts to education and delayed payments to their districts, they’ve worked like mad to keep doomsday scenarios from happening.

"I think we're extremely adept and good at not having it felt by our students and our families, which probably in some ways is counterproductive to our continued pleas for increases in funding," said Mark Porter, superintendent of the South Washington County district.

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School leaders say they've kept troubles bubbling under the surface. The final state budget delayed $700 million more in K-12 payments, which will force school districts to borrow more money to meet cash needs, but the state boosted per-pupil spending to offset financing costs.

South Washington County

Porter said even relatively affluent districts like his face tough choices.

The district trimmed $5 million from this year's $150 million budget. Half of the cut came from skipping a payment to a pension fund, a move students will never notice. That's not a good long-term tactic.

"We're spending more than we're taking in," Porter said. "We know that, so we're going to have to make some systemic adjustments as we look ahead."

The closest South Washington County’s budget cutting came to students was the district’s decision not to buy new driver's education simulators. Porter said that move sets up a debate for this year over whether to drop driver's ed altogether.

Lancaster

In northwestern Minnesota, Lancaster school has fewer than 200 students. Superintendent Brad Homstad said his district fared well under the new state budget, in part, because money was restored in a fund available to operate schools in sparsely populated areas of the state.

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Restoring that $100,000 is a lot for a district with a $2.48 million budget.

Still, a previous cut means one person teaches both business and home economics. Having a teacher's aide take on some custodial duties will save $5,000.

"More people have accepted more responsibility and have engaged in more tasks," Homstad said.

Lancaster's budget also was helped by last year's voter tax approval. Homeowners now pay $177 more in property taxes on a $50,000 house.

"They might be telling us no new taxes down in St. Paul, but the reality is there are new taxes in Lancaster, Minnesota," Homstad said. "We're trying to make up what we're not getting from St. Paul locally."

St. Cloud

In central Minnesota, St. Cloud superintendent Bruce Watkins cut $3 million dollars this year from a $113-million budget. About $81 million of that will come from the state, an increase of about a $500,000 over last year.

The district also eliminated more than 40 of 800 teaching positions, though attrition will prevent that from translating into 40 layoffs. That's spread out over about a dozen schools, so Watkins said students might not notice.

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"I don't know of any Minnesota school adequately staffed," he said.

Watkins also cut a character-building program and spoke of what he would tell the teacher who created it.

"The future of this program, like many other programs, depends on adequate financing," he said. "We don't feel we've received that at this time."

Chatfield

In southern Minnesota, Chatfield superintendent Ed Harris said students are still talking about their recent class photo with President Obama during his bus tour.

Harris also hears from high school students who can't enroll in classes they need to graduate because fewer sections are being offered.

"I get complaints all the time because our schedule is tight," Harris said. "We're trying to squeeze every ounce of staffing we have to get the opportunities we need so they can get their graduation credits."

There were no layoffs this year but there were last year, which tightened the schedule. For Harris, this year's state budget was neutral.

"While the state budget didn't outright harm anybody, which was a fear, I think, at the beginning, it's not as big of a windfall as people are saying," he said. "That's unfortunate because it's going to give people the wrong impression."

That impression will be key when Chatfield seeks a tax levy from voters this fall. Nearly 40 percent of all Minnesota districts will seek local money from voters to supplement state funds, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association.

To date, 133 districts have signed up for a vote, the highest number in more than a decade.

Without that funding, Harris another round of big, painful cuts would be necessary in Chatfield.

"We're walking up to a cliff, and the cliff is not in a horizon," he said. "It's within plain sight."

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