Education funding a volatile subject
This is one of those weeks when I wish I had a 2,500-word limit. As I write this column, I am working from a file that currently stretches to five pages.
I knew that my May 5 column ("Schools in Crisis," about the school budget cuts) would be a hot one. But I was still surprised by the unprecedented e-mails, phone calls and letters I received over the last two weeks from parents and teachers in Rochester and beyond. Many of you wrote passionately about this topic — whether debating a future referendum, offering advice, or expressing your frustration with the current situation (or just my opinions about it).
In my column, I stated that I support a future referendum to help alleviate our budget crunch. Whether I agree with all of the district’s decisions is irrelevant. I want my sons to have the best education possible.
This stance had its supporters and detractors. Clearly, the topic of education funding is a volatile one. One reader, who identified herself as a "retired teacher’s wife," wrote, "The school district’s financial problem can be solved. Why should administratives be so overpaid? Cut their wages. Let them go and find jobs elsewhere. You did not even touch on this solution in your article. I’m disappointed to say the least."
"We must not let this turn into a political battle," argued one teacher. "We must think only about what voting "No" would mean to our children and our community."
"[Pawlenty] suggests that we may need to cut benefits and salaries to balance the budget," commented one reader. "While this may be one option, I think others need to be explored first, such as efficiently using the resources available for the good of all instead of throughing [sic] a lot of resources at a select few."
Of all the people who contacted me during the last two weeks, however, I listened with greatest attention to Dr. Romain Dallemend, Rochester’s superintendent of schools. When we sat down together this week, he answered a long list of questions — and not all of them easy.
Interview with Dr. Romain Dallemand
Q: Where does our budget go?
A: Sixty-seven percent (67%) of our budget goes to teachers’ salaries. Eighty-three percent (83%) of our budget goes to salaries and benefits for all district staff.
And so we are at the stage where cuts have to come from the classroom. And if we do not make up the shortfall, the next step is closing down buildings and consolidating programs.
Q: Why do we have a budget shortfall?
A:We have had a reduction in state funding. We receive $442 per pupil from the state each year. Other districts our size receive $1,000.
This is nothing that just sneaked up on us while we weren’t looking. We knew this was coming. We tried to address it. Several years ago, before I arrived in Rochester, we ran a referendum because we knew, even back then, that we didn’t have any money. There were two questions on that referendum: One was to renew the existing levy, and it passed. The other asked for an increase. That referendum did not pass.
In addition, the unallotment passed last night. It is sitting on Pawlenty’s desk as we speak. This means that in addition to the $5 million we already have to cut next year, we’ll now be $12 million shorter than we had anticipated.
Q: Why the uneven balance of funding across the state?
A: One of the reasons we’re suffering is because we have districts with 80 kids, with 100 kids in Minnesota. Those smaller districts are receiving very few tax dollars, so the state has to make up for it.
Q: Can we offer the same (quality) education with limited resources?
A: Not with the system the way it is today. But this is a great opportunity to create the education system of the future… to create a smarter education system. We’ll have no choice but to do that. If we continue to hold on to the same system that we’ve had, with this lack of funding, it’s not going to happen.
We must think of our situation as an opportunity: A problem is a problem to be solved. We must ask, can education look differently than how it looked we were raised? This challenge is a way for us to step back, take a hard look, and set our goals. We may have to change the way we do things—we may have to look at alternate schedules, for instance—but we can still educate our students.
Q: It feels like we’re getting harder hit in Rochester. Would you say that’s true?
A: What’s going on financially in the district is not unique to Rochester. It’s taking place in the entire state. And not only in Minnesota. You’ll find the same situation in 41 other states. These are tough times across the nation, but we cannot afford to let that prevent us from preparing this generation of students. Because in the long run, the price will be far greater than the additional funds it will cost for the referendum. We cannot afford not to support educating our own future.
Q: Times are tough. So why should anyone vote for a referendum?
Public education is not free education. Somebody has to pay for it.
Q: Some criticize your five-year plan. How do you know this plan is working?
A: Two years ago, we had 3,630 students in the opportunity gap. We were not proficient. Today, we have 3,038 students in the gap. That’s 15% fewer in the gap in two years. We also have a tremendous decrease in the suspension rate.
Q: What about the people who say that only minority children are being served?
A: There are more white middle class students in the gap than minority students.
Q: What do you tell the parents who believe the only reason we’re closing the gap is because the higher-level students are falling down?
A: In the last two years, there has been a huge increase in the number of students taking AP classes in all three high schools. There has been a 20% increase at Century, a 40% increase at Mayo, and a 50% increase at John Marshall.
If we were only closing the gap because the top students were falling or being forgotten, why would there be the increase? The five-year plan makes it clear that we want to move most students into the upper level.
Q: As a parent, my biggest concern is growing class sizes. What’s the solution?
A: Lowering class sizes is not the answer. I know it’s hard to grasp. Common sense tells you smaller classes get better results. But if I have a teacher who is struggling with content—and I take them out of a class with 25 students and put them in a class of 15, that teacher is still struggling with content. But if I have a superstar teacher and give him or her a class of 25, I will see incredible results.
There’s a lot of energy spent on class sizes, on only incremental improvement, instead of having the right teachers.
Q: Okay, then, how do we eliminate teachers who aren’t "superstars"?
A: If a teacher isn’t cutting it, that teacher moves across three tracks: track 1, to track 2, then track 3. They are reviewed, they are offered support to help them improve, and they are evaluated. It’s a process, and sometimes it can take several years.
Q: Is this a "union" thing?
A: Yes, it is in agreement with the union.
Q: There is an ocean of assumption and rumor in the community about the school district, about the budget, about the five-year-plan. And I think that’s because there’s a lack of information—it almost feels like there’s a shroud of secrecy around the upper administration in the district.
A: [Nods.] I’ve considered writing a superintendent’s blog. It may be something that is happening in the near future.
Q: You face incredible challenges and low morale. Why not just leave?
A: [Smiles, shakes head, pauses.] There’s a lot of work to be done here.