District responds to governor's questions about accountability
What Duluth School Superintendent Julio Almanza wants is for Gov. Ventura to actually define "accountability." Ventura had plenty to say about K-12 funding when he sat down with Murphy McGinnis Newspaper editors for an interview in St. Paul a few...
What Duluth School Superintendent Julio Almanza wants is for Gov. Ventura to actually define "accountability."
Ventura had plenty to say about K-12 funding when he sat down with Murphy McGinnis Newspaper editors for an interview in St. Paul a few weeks ago.
In a story that ran in the Budgeteer News on March 18, the governor voiced his criticisms about how school districts have spent their money. He challenged the claim that schools are underfunded, and again brought that word, "accountability," into play.
"How do you define accountability? He hasn't defined it," said Almanza during a recent interview with the Budgeteer.
The governor is demanding accountability from all Minnesota school districts to justify his proposal for K-12 funding. If his proposal is enacted, the Duluth School District will face a $13.5 million shortfall for the next biennium, according to school district officials.
"If his issue of accountability, or his perception, that education is a 'black hole,' I would say look at where Minnesota is in terms of the standards nationwide. We're at the top," Almanza said.
"In performance, but not at the top in spending," added Greg Hein, director of business services for the school district.
Almanza said if accountability is submitting all expenditure reports, contract reports, funding balances, student testing data and other measures of student performance, then the Duluth School District has complied with everything the state requires. And the administration is constantly using and analyzing data to determine how Duluth stacks up against other districts in the state.
"In my mind, that creates accountability," Hein said.
Both Almanza and Hein agree with the governor that statewide district spending has outpaced inflation. But they say enrollment figures, health insurance, special education and high energy costs are major culprits in the current budget crisis that can't be ignored.
Almanza said Duluth spends more money than most districts on additional services to provide students with high quality education. Also, in the last 10 years, schools have reduced class sizes.
"There's a cost to that," Hein said. "Schools are expected to do a lot more than what they were in 1990, and if you look at our data, our ratio of teacher to pupils has come down. A lot of people want that for education."
Gov. Ventura also claimed that school districts "ate up all the money" in the last budget increase in contract settlements, that 80 to 85 percent of the money went to wages and benefits.
Almanza and Hein argue that in the last 10 years, teacher salaries have not kept up with inflation and that, in fact, the percentage change in teacher salaries statewide from 1989 to 1999, after adjusting for inflation, is at minus 4 percent.
Ventura also said that it costs more to educate a student in public schools than it does in private schools. It costs an average of $9,000 statewide to educate a child in Minnesota public schools but only $8,000 at a private school such as Blake.
Hein said he agrees with the governor's total, that it does cost an average of $9,000 to educate a student.
"But if we want to compare ourselves to a private school, such as Blake, there are things that the Duluth Public Schools do that a private school does not," Hein said.
Those things include special education services, adult education beyond the 12th grade and programming prior to the kindergarten level, such as Headstart and Learning Readiness.
"We're serving a much broader population than just K-12." Hein said. "If Blake did offer all those programs, I believe their tuition would have to be increased because of those costs."
"The fundamental principle of public education is to educate all kids," Almanza added. "In the private schools, you don't have that same commitment. You get to select who comes in and who doesn't. Private schools can, in fact, tomorrow say to a parent, 'Find another school.' In our public school system, even if we have to expel a child, we still become liable for that education elsewhere."
Ventura is backing a bill that would require school districts to run a balanced budget for four years.
If the Legislature could guarantee how much money school districts will get, then Almanza said it's possible to run on a balanced budget four years out. But the federal government would also need to fully fund mandated services for special education, as well as adjust the funding formula to meet inflationary increases.
The reality, however, is that the Duluth School District could face some painful cuts.
"Is it possible to cut $13.5 million and make everybody happy? I have yet to hear a person say to me, 'This is what I can do without for next year.' ... The bottom line is, when we cut we will be cutting people. We will be cutting programs. We will be reducing services," Almanza said.
"We have a choice; our community has a choice. We could spend all of our reserves and let our future children pay that consequence, or we can, and I think our board is doing that, try to make the best cuts possible.
"No, it's not possible to make everybody happy."
Sandi Dahl is an education reporter for the Budgeteer News. Contact her at 723-1207 or at email@example.com .