As schools open across Minnesota on Tuesday, the tough economic times will be more noticeable to students, teachers -- and soon, taxpayers.
In November, a record 133 school districts say they'll ask taxpayers to support referendums to ward off cuts that have condensed class schedules, provoked higher pay-to-play fees and forced schools to resort to in-school advertising to make ends meet.
"We don't see an end in sight to the difficult budget cuts," North Branch Superintendent Deb Henton said. "It makes it extraordinarily difficult to look to the future and believe that things are going to improve."
When indexed for inflation, school revenue across the state has declined by double digits over the past eight years, according to a state Education Finance Working Group convened this winter. Referendums helped close that gap and, as costs rise, more districts than ever will seek help from taxpayers this fall. But with an economy that has left families cash-strapped, too, voters may be less likely to approve them.
In 2005, voters supported 80 percent of referendum questions. Last fall, the approval rate dropped to 23 percent, state records show.
'It keeps getting worse'
In North Branch, school leaders will appeal to voters this fall for the eighth time after seven failed attempts. The 3,500-student district north of the Twin Cities is among 10 percent of districts in Minnesota without an operating levy for day-to-day expenses. As students return to the second year of four-day school weeks, more crowded classrooms and cuts to everything from jazz band to middle-school soccer, leaders have pared back their request.
"Our kids just lack so many opportunities [because] we've cut so much," school board chairwoman Kim Salo said.
North Branch has joined the growing list of districts turning to advertising to drum up dollars, plastering ads on lockers and school mailings, football games and in staff lounges. The district is also allowing businesses to solicit at parent-teacher conferences. At a recent school open house, a local gym paid to set up a table and hawk memberships.
The desperate measures follow $14 million in cuts over the past eight years, and "it just keeps getting worse and worse," Henton said, blaming the shift of raising property taxes from the state to the local level. "It's absolutely frustrating."
In Lakeville, voter rejection of a tax increase last fall left the school board facing a projected two-year, $15.8 million budget deficit. The impact was felt across the district: An elementary school closed. Scores of jobs were cut. Activity fees shot up, with the district charging up to $600 for hockey.