Rural schools prepare for state budget cuts

Published 9:05 am Monday, December 29, 2008

Three heads are better than one when it comes to facing the imminent state budget cuts, a few local school districts have decided.

According to Grand Meadow Public Schools Superintendent Joe Brown, administrators from Southland, LeRoy-Ostrander and Grand Meadow have planned a meeting of the minds this morning to discuss what collaborative options they may have.

“The purpose of the meeting is to brainstorm ways we can efficiently use our limited resources,” Brown explained. “We’re going to be talking about sharing faculty and support staff, curriculum and continuation of sharing sports programs.”

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Brown said they are taking a proactive approach to what he calls “deep cuts” predicted from the legislature, who has reported a $5.2 billion deficit in the next 2 1/2 years.

“I’m just kind of assuming we aren’t going to get any new money for the next couple years,” said Brown, whose wife, Robin, is a state representative. “I don’t think there’s a superintendent in the state of Minnesota who thinks we are going to get an increase in the next couple years.”

School enrollment keeps falling in Minnesota, and with it schools will have to do with fewer dollars from the state.

Educators attribute the lower numbers of students to a tough housing market, an aging population and a lower birth rate. Statewide, 90 percent of school districts should see declining enrollment by next year, according to a 2006 analysis by the state House of Representatives.

That could put even more budget stress on Minnesota schools, already likely to face pressures from the state of Minnesota’s huge budget deficit next year. Gov. Tim Pawlenty and lawmakers are expected to reduce revenue to Minnesota schools by about $22 million — on top of the budget deficits facing many schools themselves.

In all, the number of students in Minnesota schools dropped by 2,368 students from 2007 to 2008, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

During the meeting Monday, Grand Meadow, Southland and LeRoy-Ostrander districts will begin looking at the next 18 months and what they can do to save dollars by utilizing each other’s programs and resources.

“We really are thinking that far ahead,” Brown said. “All three of us were fortunate in the past few years.”

Voters in the three districts each recently passed referendums, which Brown said shows the communities support their schools.

“Al three of use will have some additional local property tax money coming in,” he said.

Brown explained that Grand Meadow is actually seeing an increase in enrollment, particularly with the budget cuts at Rochester schools.

The district is one of few small rural districts not facing tumbling enrollment numbers, and has even added a bus route to accommodate students who live farther away.

“Schools really have to put on their marketing cap,” he said.

Grand Meadow is working on a new marketing campaign, Plus 25, which aims to boost enrollment by 25 students within the next year.

“Not only do the kids come here, but they stay here,” Brown said.