Archived Story

Minn. spring means test scores, budget cuts

Published 9:05am Friday, March 30, 2012

Column: Notes from Home

Ah, spring. The time of year when birds call to their mates from trees, whose branches bud and swell with the promise of leaves and flowers. Men and women throughout the community lift their winter-grimed faces to the sky and cry out: It’s the time of year for budget cuts!

At least that’s what I’m expecting to hear news about any day now. Spring is that lovely time of year when teachers, students and parents have all come to expect to hear bad news — sometimes getting the painful slap we expected and sometimes breathing a huge sigh of relief as somebody else’s teacher or program gets sacrificed. Every so often there’s a jubilee year — you, know, when nobody gets sent away into the outer darkness and everyone celebrates.

Coincidentally, spring is also the time the time of year for those wonderful MCAs — the tests mandated by the No Child Left Behind regulations that nobody seems to like and nobody seems to be able to do anything about. Messages will come home from school about getting more sleep at night and eating better because testing days are here again. In fact, those messages may already be here, buried on the kitchen table with all the other important mail that we haven’t had time to read yet.

The scores on those amazing MCAs over the past few years appear to explain why so many classrooms and teaching teams were disrupted before the beginning of the current school year. Because if that wasn’t the reason so many teachers were moved around, then that whole experience looks pretty, well … random or even capricious.

Even if it’s a Jubilee year, and there are no budget cut announcements, it’s no mystery why they would be on my mind; cuts to programs and staff have been part of just about each new fiscal year since we moved to Albert Lea almost 15 years ago. Part of the reason for that pattern is local — Freeborn County’s population of school-age children shrinks every year. Not enough immigrants move here to replace the families that age out of children or move away.

Why would immigrants with children live in a community where many people seem to fear or despise them? Why would a business expand or move to a community where so many people seem to have such a defeatist attitude about the future?

But I digress …

Another important explanation for constant financial restructuring in District 241 flows from decisions made by legislators and the governor in St. Paul and members of Congress and the education department in Washington. Their commitments to public education have weakened or even become nonexistent in some cases. Dollars come with strings attached, many strings that require local funds to pay for what the strings require.

The attitude of too many officials in government offices focuses on punishment. Actually helping students learn is far down on the list of priorities. Oh, they talk about kids; everybody trying to tell teachers what to do talks about kids. Talk is cheap. Talk is dangerous.

On the other hand, there is a local issue connected with cuts and academic achievement that I don’t hear too many people talk about; it involves local school leadership. Last year’s budget cuts and staff restructuring were approved by the school board, but the plan all came from the superintendent, who gave the board one option.

School board members say they don’t want to be involved in day-to-day management decisions. And generally I agree; micromanagement of an institution by elected politicians is usually a disaster. But setting a budget’s priorities is not a day-to-day management issue; there is nothing micro about District 241’s budget.

Whatever gets announced this spring, we will face more budget cuts in the future, and when those happen, more options need to be presented to the school board and community — and school board members need to insist upon them. More people need to be included in the process that comes up with those options — not just one man acting as the district’s commander. And the impact of financial priorities on students really needs to be at the center of the whole process, instead of merely talked about.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.