Public education in Minnesota is in crisis. State education funding has dropped nearly 14% since 2003, while costs have continued to rise. Many districts, including Cook County, have also seen a steady decline in enrollment, triggering further reductions in state aid. This has put ISD 166 in a tough financial position, and this fall the district has an operating levy referendum on the ballot. But Cook County isn’t alone. Nearly ninety percent of Minnesota’s school districts now rely on local property tax levies to make up for reductions in state funding.
“Welcome to tonight’s presentation on the operating levy that ISD 166 is running this fall.”
Beth Schwarz is the superintendent of ISD 166. She’s been travelling the county making presentations on the operating levy referendum.
“An operating levy. Let’s talk about what it is. It is a voter approved property tax increase which generates money for a public school system. It would raise taxes $67 per year on $100,000 of marketable tax value.”
Richard Smith was one of three people who came to the operating levy presentation at Gunflint Lodge on Monday, September 27. His two children graduated from Cook County High School.
“My wife and I feel that because our children were afforded the education that enabled them to go where they are today and accomplish what they have, that we feel that the students, the upcoming students need the same opportunities,” says Smith. “And if you look at the figures, yes, it hurts, and yes, I don’t like to pay taxes, but I look at this as an investment to the future, not only of myself and my family, but also for Cook County. If we don’t offer good education in Cook County, we are not going to get the professional teachers and doctors and other professional people we need to support Cook County residents, and therefore it’s going to hurt our county if we don’t have a good school system. It hurts our county if we don’t have a good hospital. It hurts our county if we don’t have good churches. But we definitely gotta have good schools.”
“One of the big questions that’s out there, is well, how did the district, how did this end up happening. Why do you need the money? And there’s several reasons for that, first of all there’s been declining, and more significantly changes in how the state and federal aid funding comes in. The state of Minnesota has shifted funds and delayed funds, which has forced us to borrow money. In our case, we borrowed approximately just under $700,000 last year.”
“Both of our kids graduated. My daughter is a teacher at Lake Superior college. Has a master’s degree and teaches nursing. Our son holds two board certifications. One as a general surgeon the other as a plastic surgeon, and they’re both graduates from Cook County.”
“What happens if the levy doesn’t pass? Well, the school board by law has to balance the budget. One thing we would have to look at is the elimination of some, possibly all athletics and activities. We would have more classes in grades 4-12 with over 30 students, it would depend on how many courses the school board chose to cut and where they decided to cut from.”
ISD 166 has already made a lot of cuts. More than $850,000 has been trimmed from the budget since the 2006/2007 school year, including five full time teaching positions and four full time support staff positions. In addition, student fees have gone up, class sizes have increased, para-professional hours have been reduced, and bus routes curtailed. Despite these measures, ISD 166, like many other districts across the state, can’t make ends meet, forcing them to turn to local communities for help.
Virginia Hahn was one of about 15 people that came to the referendum meeting in Hovland on Tuesday, September 28.
“I can remember when I was in, probably 6th grade. This was shortly after World War II. Families were booming, and we had a referendum. And my mother went around trying to get people to vote for it, and she went to a lot of retired people who were going to vote it down because they didn’t have kids in school, and I thought that’s pretty pathetic and short sighted. We live on social security. Do you want somebody flipping hamburgers paying your social security, or do you want a nuclear physicist? I’ll take the nuclear physicist. The kids are our future. I’ve got grandchildren that are in other school districts and I can’t do anything for them. But I can vote here, I can volunteer in this school district, and the kids are wonderful. I love the kids.”
The final ISD 166-sponsored referendum meeting will be at the Arrowhead Center for the Arts in Grand Marais on Monday, October 11th at 6:30 p.m. The following evening, Tuesday, the 12th, a group that opposes the operating levy referendum, led by former school board candidate Michael O’Phelan, will meet at the Senior Center in Grand Marais at 7 p.m.