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Tom Nelson: The Days Of Financial Security Are Numbered In Stillwater Schools

After the 2011-2012 school year, the days of living off of a fund balance will be over for Stillwater schools, and will need to start cutting back on what can be offered to students, Superintendent Tom Nelson says. "This is our reality."

In a recent school-district wide survey, the question was asked: “Do you think the Stillwater Area Schools are adequately funded?” Sixty-five percent of those answering the survey said yes.

In the same survey, the question was asked: “Do you think the state legislature provides adequate funding to the Stillwater Area Schools?” On this question only 37 percent of those surveyed said yes, 48 percent answered no and 14 percent were not sure.

These are very interesting and somewhat contradictory results. What these results tell me is that I need to do a better job of explaining how school funding works in Minnesota.

In general, our public schools receive about 70 percent of our revenues from the State of Minnesota. We get another five percent from the federal government in the form of targeted grants and aides, and the other 25 percent comes from our local property taxes.

For the past five years the state funding we receive per student has remained relatively constant. The only increases school districts are receiving is primarily from increased local referendums. This occurs when the local district ask voters to approve a levy increase to fund the schools. Without an increase at the state level, where 70 percent of our funds come from, the referendum has become the only vehicle left to adequately fund our schools. While this is not an acceptable way to fund schools, in reality it is the only choice left.

The last referendum held in the Stillwater Area Public Schools was in 2007. Our residents approved the levy request and it has provided additional funding to our schools for the past four years. Without this funding, we would have been forced to significantly reduce our programs. The district used this money to continue to provide quality opportunities for our students. I believe that is why when asked if the Stillwater schools are adequately funded the answer was yes.

We have been living off this money for the past four years. We have had a positive fund balance and spent down a portion of this fund balance each year. After the 2011-2012 school year, the days of living off our fund balance will be over, and our district—like many other Minnesota school districts—will need to start cutting back on what can be offered to our students.

I know some will say, “This is a threat” and we don’t mean it.  No, I will guarantee you that this is our reality.

This information has been shared with our school board as they plan for the future of the Stillwater Area Public Schools. The outlook for the near future is there will be no additional state funding, in fact a very small decline, and certainly no additional federal money.

The only place to even hold a financial discussion is with our own communities. I know this frustrates people, but this is the way schools have been funded for years. Local people decide on the quality of education they want for their young people.

In my short time here, I have come to know this community as one of the quality places to live in Minnesota. This is a community with longstanding, proud traditions and a well earned reputation as a leader in our state. In great communities you will always find great schools, because great communities invest in the education of their citizens. This is a great community and you have wonderful schools. 

I am not sure what decisions the school board will make about asking the local taxpayers for additional dollars for our schools. This issue will be debated by the board over the next two months. This debate should be a positive, healthy one for the community. In America, we get the opportunity to discuss, debate and vote on our future.  This community discussion will be about the value we place on our public schools. Remember, great communities and great schools go hand in hand.

Mary June 07, 2011 at 01:56 PM
@Mark Also, I think the issue isn't that bashing special education as the cause of budget woes is "politically incorrect," it's more that it is spreading misinformation. (For the reasons stated in my previous post.)
Kristen Wesloh June 07, 2011 at 02:08 PM
I support Stillwater schools. The quality of the teachers and staff, and the breadth of opportunity offered to students and the community, are the reasons we chose to buy a house in Stillwater. For some people, it all boils down to money ("Some people have cash registers instead of hearts." - Hubert Humphrey). I would encourage everyone to research the ISD 834 budget information (http://www.stillwater.k12.mn.us/sites/363874ed-8822-4032-b432-366a02d38aa1/uploads/2009-10Shareholders.pdf) for details about administrative expenses, and to look at numerous studies showing that investment in local education yields higher home values (http://www.mn2020.org/issues-that-matter/education/education-excellence-translates-into-real-estate-value). As the baby boomers start looking to downsize, it will be young families with children buying their houses - and those buyers will want to live in a district where schools are a valued community asset.
Riley June 07, 2011 at 02:10 PM
To M. Anderson: You might want to do some research on state and federal funding for special needs children before you blame our district financial troubles on 'mainstreaming'....not a very informed opinion, nor very humane.
Riley June 07, 2011 at 03:48 PM
To Mary: As a recent homebuyer in Stillwater, and a former educator, I couldn't agree more that a continuous investment in our schools will continue the stability and prosperity for our entire community. Our school district can show that it's teachers have more experience and education than surrounding areas, and that comes with a price tag. I will be someone who looks outside of Stillwater if our levies and bonds start failing, as I am all too aware of the long term consequences if the support for our schools dwindles. Ofcourse, our education system needs to be efficient and effective to be financially responsible, but Stillwater is one of the few districts around that has been financially responsible.
Randy Marsh June 07, 2011 at 04:11 PM
Fine then, invest in educating our students rather than the excessive number of fat cats sitting in their air conditioned offices at central services. You can support education without being wasteful and it's clear the board and administration does not manage the taxpayers dollars like most people would manage their own finances.

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