September 24, 2007

No local levy?

For the first time since 1985, DC finds itself operating without local money

By Kristen Miller
Staff Writer

Brian Rootes of Dassel began attending school board meetings after a levy attempt failed two years ago – and found he was one of the only citizens there.

Rootes admits going into the meetings with a negative opinion of how the district was being funded.

Over time, Rootes began to understand the district’s funding issues, despite the complicated nature of the subject.

He also began to realize the importance of a local levy.

“The way state funding is setup, schools need a local levy to complete the necessary funding,” Rootes said.

“It’s not an option anymore,” he added.

Now, this year is the first school year since 1985 that DC is operating with no local dollars and working with the minimum funding from the state. Rootes is doing what he can to change that.

To help get the levy passed, Rootes is chairing the DC levy committee as a way of helping communicate the need of a levy to the community.

Rootes has found two major areas where the district is deficient due to lack of funding including increased class sizes and lack of course offerings.

Understanding the complexity of school financing and unfunded mandate, Rootes believes class sizes are becoming too large making it more difficult to meet state standards.

Also, Rootes wants high school course offerings that are comparable to other districts for students who are either career bound or college bound.

“School funding is complex and people can’t base their opinion on one or two pieces,” he said.

“If the levy doesn’t pass, we will keep seeing annual reductions of $200,000 to $300,000,” Rootes said.

Over the last three years, the Dassel-Cokato High School had approximately 40 sections cut from its course offerings resulting in less opportunity for students.

Some of the sections that saw cuts included English, math, art, and foreign language. Other areas including activities have seen increased fees for student participation.

Dassel-Cokato High School Principal Dean Jennissen is already seeing an impact on students from continual cuts.

With new state requirements in math, science, and language arts, students are having to gain the skills needed in order to meet those standards, according to Jennissen.

“We have requirements for the students, but no money to get them there,” Jennissen said.

These new state-mandated requirements are taking away choices from students, according to Jennissen.

“Instead of elective offerings for students, we are increasing the amount of required courses. Elective offerings help students explore classes that might better suit their artistic, creative, musical, or athletic abilities,” Jennissen said.

Since these requirements come with no funding attached, other programs will be cut to ensure these mandates are met within current budget constraints, according to Jennissen.

The state is also increasing the difficulty of tests students are required to pass.

“Although you won’t find any of our educators against high standards and increased rigor, but this does mean will have a growing number of students who will need additional support in order to meet these higher standards,” Jennissen said.

Additional support could include more staff, time, and possibly a different teaching style requiring staff development.

“We want students to leave here having explored all of their interests. We want students to leave here with a clear post-high school plan. We want students to leave here with the knowledge and ability to think critically so they may make informed choices about all of the important things they will experience beyond high school. Most importantly, we want students to leave here knowing we cared about them,” Jennissen said.

“We have to ask ourselves, what do we want for our students when they leave here?,” he said.

Mark Peterson, high school biology instructor, is concerned about large class sizes.

With the new science requirements, large class sizes makes it more difficult for students to learn.

Peterson’s average science class size is 35 students. In a 70-minute class period, this allows the teacher two minutes per student.

Also, the science labs aren’t set up for 35 students, they are set up for a class of 24, according to Peterson.

Although there has never been an accident, “We think about safety a lot in science [as well as industrial technology and other hands-on courses], and when class sizes get too big we really get nervous,” he said.

Peterson says adding another science teacher would not only decrease class sizes, but also allow for more electives in science.

“Genetics for example, is a field that is exploding in front of us,” Peterson said.

Exercise physiology, astronomy, and meteorology are also popular fields.

“We want to keep the students challenged,” Peterson said.

“Juniors and seniors are opting out and going post secondary because we can’t offer them those challenges,” he added.

A board perspective

Current school board member Kevin Bjork has a similar story as Rootes.

He began attending school board meetings after the levy continued to fail so he could understand school finances and where the district was spending.

Bjork knew there was a need for a levy based on his experience as a parent of three school-age children. He also felt the need wasn’t being addressed clearly to the community, Bjork said.

Like Rootes, Bjork wanted to understand school financing and how the district was spending its money.

He began to see the need for the levy. Aside from seeing the need for reducing class sizes and offering more courses for high school students, Bjork began to see the implications of federal and state mandates including No Child Left Behind.

Without a levy, the district will further be channeling funding to meet these mandates impacting other opportunities and offerings students currently have.

“It’s creating a situation that will make things worse as time goes on,” Bjork said.

He explained it like a ripple effect – larger class sizes makes it more difficult for students to learn and teachers to teach. This in turn will affect testing and the ability for students to meet those federal and state mandates.

With the lack of local funding, Bjork is seeing more and more energy being put into funding and budget cuts.

“That energy should be put into the students and moving forward,” he said.

Budget cuts made so far:

Dassel Cokato has trimmed $1 million from its budget over the past four years. So far, the school has:

• Cut the curriculum director position, shifting those duties elsewhere.

• Cut the assistant principal position for the high school.

• Increased activity fees and drivers education fees.

• Charged students for parking.

• Ended its shared community education position with Litchfield, moving those duties to the DC activities director.

Prior to this, DC cut four-and-a-half teaching positions in its 2006-07 budget.

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