Life in the City

Eating the young: A citizen's guide to the latest round of school budget cuts

So there I was sitting in the Washburn High School Auditorium one night last month, along with hundreds of other people, trying to decide how to eat the young.

We had gathered with the school board to figure out how to cut $30 million from district budget. Thanks to our Governor -- who last spring decided to underfund schools so he could send out his so-called "Jesse checks" that allowed the average family to buy, say, a DVD player--we were now trying to figure out exactly what pounds of flesh to cut off from the kids.

Should we chop off a hand or a leg? Or maybe just both legs below the knee? Should we eliminate all bus service for high school students, all-day kindergarten and cut various sports? Or should we add another child per class to the referendum size and commit political suicide?

Decisions. Decisions. I know many of you are sick unto death of school budget woes and would like to read about something A Bit More Entertaining. Well, me too. Get in line. But meanwhile, I'd like to answer a few commonly asked questions about the latest round of budget cuts.

Wait a second. Didn't we just pass a referendum last year? So what's the big problem?

The referendum reduces class size. It's our life raft, our ace in the hole, our pact with the wonderful voters of Minneapolis, which is why I think it should be sacred. Tell the board not to add one child over referendum size!

But the referendum accounts for less than 10 percent of our operating budget, the vast majority of which comes from the state. When the Governor and House Republicans decided to make tax cuts and rebates their Holy of Holies, something had to be sacrificed. Why not eat the young?

And a big problem is special education. Remember all those premature, less than two-pound babies, who are saved every day by the miracle of modern medicine? They're darling. They're heroic. And five years later, when they show up in public school, they're usually disabled, sometimes severely, and needing special ed.

Don't get me wrong. It's not the kids' fault. They didn't ask for their lot in life.

We mustn't turn our back on our most vulnerable. But can we be clear? These services are expensive, costing as high as $20,000 per child per year. And under federal and state law, the schools are legally required to provide it. When schools balk at the price, the lawyers show up. Right out of thin air.

But if the government requires schools

to provide these expensive services, shouldn't the feds and state be paying for most of it?

Well, they certainly should. And they promised they would. But they don't. Never have. So last year, the Minneapolis district had to take $27.5 million out of its general fund--the money the state gives us to teach the basic reading and writing and math--to cover the ever-growing costs of special ed that the feds and state are suppose to pay.

But isn't part of the problem bureaucratic waste, especially the fat at the top? Why can't schools be run more like a business?

Record numbers of which are filing for bankruptcy, but never mind. As far as the top fat goes, darling, there ain't much left. Years of budget cuts have trimmed our schools' central administrative costs down to a lean, mean four percent of the total district budget. Try to match that in the corporate world.

Okay, okay, but we're still looking at that $30-million deficit. So what do we cut?

This one is really hard. Which may explain the strange phenomenon at the public hearing at Washburn. I mean, a $30-million deficit coming at us like a freight train and what did the overwhelming majority of people want to discuss?

A tiny cut in the athletic budget, specifically whether girls' gymnastics, boys' hockey and the swimming, skiing and cross-country programs should be eliminated or made self-supporting by increasing the fees.

You'll get no jock-bashing from this corner. The 50 or more speakers were articulate, extremely civil, and in truth, they were asking for so little. Most were willing to pay increased fees and do fund-raising. They simply wanted to save their sports.

Still, the near-total emphasis on sports made me wonder. Is it because the other $29.5 million in cuts are so big and awful, we just can't wrap our brains around it? Or is it because we're basically a shallow culture that values sports over reading, writing and math?

Then what did you wish people had wrapped their brain around?

Number one, keeping the referendum sacred. Number two, preserving the $2.2 million of impact aid. Because all politics is local, and if impact aid is eliminated, middle-class schools will be singled out for the absolutely harshest cuts in the district.

The district gives this aid to middle-class schools because the state funding formulas so negatively impact them. These formulas give far more money to poor students. Which is why a middle-class school like Barton gets $5,193 per student while a poorer school like West Central Academy gets $8,670 per student.

Poor kids cost more to educate, so fair enough. But then the special ed monster rears its head again. Because the feds and state refuse to pay their share of special ed, every school has to make up the difference from their own building budget. Middle-class schools get hit the hardest because they start out with so much less money. Without impact aid, these schools will have a hard time paying for secretaries, social workers, counselors, lunchroom aides, ELL assistants, paper for the copying machine and plenty more. None of which are legally required.

So who do we call about all of this?

One, the school board and Superintendent. Tell 'em what's sacred, what they simply can't cut. But be nice. These folks aren't the cause. They're just being forced to make the tough calls

Two, the deadbeats. Specifically, President Bush and Governor Ventura. Plus state Senate leader Roger Moe and House Speaker Steve Sviggum.

Tell them Real Men Really Fund Special Ed.

And our species does not eat its young.

Lynnell Mickelsen is a Linden Hills writer. She can be reached c/o the Southwest Journal or at [email protected]