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Dick Palmer: Educational dollars demand more scrutiny

A recent story in the Minneapolis StarTribune was headlined, "Minnesota schools' spending largely driven by costs outside the classroom." It was a very informative article and explored some testy areas relating to obvious budget shortfalls flying...

A recent story in the Minneapolis StarTribune was headlined, "Minnesota schools' spending largely driven by costs outside the classroom." It was a very informative article and explored some testy areas relating to obvious budget shortfalls flying in the face of mandated programs engineered by federal and state authorities. You could say local educators and authorizing school boards are currently faced with a "Catch 22" scenario dealing with their number one mission, educating our children in a fast changing society.
The Minneapolis paper conducted a five-year spending study of Minnesota school districts and concluded that following the 2000-2001 school year, on average, school districts coughed up 53 percent of their operating budgets on social services, health care services, transportation and technology. A minority 47 percent was spent on classroom instruction.
The frightening thing about all this is the conclusion that too many statewide school districts facing deficits continue to spend more and more money while school board members wring their hands in despair. So where is all this money going, one has to ask. For starters, it was reported an estimated 70 to 80 percent of school district budgets go to employee salaries and related benefits. With health care costs going out of sight and mandated salary increases negotiated through the bargaining chain, much of this increased cost is apportioned to people who serve in a support role rather than teach our children. Add to this reality declining enrollments in certain school districts (Duluth and some area school districts included), aging physical plants that need major repairs or replacement, federal testing requirements and the list goes on.
The number of administrative staffers continue to take a big bite out of local school budgets as well and there seems to be no end to regulatory efforts by "educational dreamers" to damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead with new programs and concepts. Solving all this is not going to be easy, and that is a certainty.
In this area, the budget shortfall is threatening Duluth's surplus and that, in itself, is a serious issue. But there is much more at stake here. We need, as a community or a collection of communities, a method to share our assets and dump our deficits as quickly as possible. If the citizens of school districts in Duluth, Hermantown and Proctor don't want to consolidate, for parochial reasons mostly, why not consider a central administration authority to run all three school districts? One superintendent with an appropriate staff, central purchasing power, sharing existing assets like lab equipment, etc. could set up joint magnet schools that would benefit the needs of all the district children and, by golly, that may be only the tip of the iceberg of opportunities.
It is time to start talking about this. Area citizens need to put the pressure on. It's our children, and our money via taxation that represents the guiding light to their future.
Dick Palmer is the former editor and publisher of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached by telephone at 729-6470 or by e-mail at rpalmer@duluth.com .

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