Without levy, Lake Superior School District classes could be crowded

Superintendent Phil Minkkinen has an image of what classes will be like in the Lake Superior School District if their proposed operating levy fails -- again.

Superintendent Phil Minkkinen has an image of what classes will be like in the Lake Superior School District if their proposed operating levy fails -- again.

It will look more like teacher Amy Cavallin's classroom in Two Harbors, where 33 fifth-grade students sit cheek-by-jowl in two tight semi-

circles. Their desks are so close together that test-taking is a nightmare, and the classroom is so crowded that Cavallin has to spend a good portion of her teaching time getting students to quiet down.

"The bottom line is, it's not what's best for kids," Cavallin said.

But in the sprawling Lake Superior School District, where 1,500 students are spread out among 2,600 square miles and transportation costs alone come to $1.2 million a year, there just hasn't been enough money to go around.


The district is one of about 30 in the state -- only 10 percent of all districts -- that don't have an operating levy in place, Minkkinen said. A $950-per-student operating levy request was soundly defeated by district voters in 2006.

The district made $1.3 million in cuts after that levy failed, and the cuts hit the elementary schools in Two Harbors and Silver Bay hard, Minkkinen said. The current levy request, which would raise about

$1.2 million each year for eight years, would first go to hiring more elementary school teachers and cutting those class sizes, he said.

The levy request will be the only item on the ballot on Election Day.

To put Cavallin's class in perspective, the National Education Association advocates that there be no more than 15 students per teacher, and a smaller ratio for students needing extra help.

"I'm teaching to the masses," Cavallin said. With so many students, there's virtually no time to work with students who need extra help, or students that could excel if they are pushed a little, she said.

There are now seven elementary classes in the Lake Superior District with more than 30 students, Minkkinen said. And some upper-grade classes, such as Steve Wasko's 33-student eighth-grade art class, also are big.

But the levy is a tough sell in Lake County, where good-paying railroad jobs are no longer a certainty and about 21 percent of the population is 65 or older. Many voters no longer have children in the schools. A snapshot of the Two Harbors population could be found in Judy's Cafรฉ on Wednesday afternoon, where the pie-and-coffee crowd had gathered.


Vern Hedin, a lifelong Two Harbors resident, said he was planning to vote against the levy. His three grown children had all attended the local schools.

"It's money," Hedin said. "People in Two Harbors don't make a lot of money. There are no big wages in town."

The levy would cost a $100,000 homeowner about $111 a year, or $9.25 per month. District residents are still paying on a $32.5 million, 20-year capital building referendum that passed in 2002, after two previous building proposals failed. Much of the 2002 levy was used to build the new grades 6-12 school just outside of town.

There is still some lingering resentment over that capital levy, school officials say, with some wondering why the district needs more money after building the spacious new school.

But meager state funding increases and unique problems -- like those huge transportation costs -- mean the district needs more money just to provide a basic education, Minkkinen said.

The state has pledged a

1 percent increase in school spending for the next school year. But with inflation bumping many of the district's costs up by about

3 percent, and most of the district's employees' contracts up for renewal soon, Minkkinen said if the current levy request fails there will surely be another round of budget cuts. He estimated future cuts at between $300,000 and 500,000.


Back at Judy's, Darlene Stevens said she plans to flip-flop from her vote last year, when she voted against the levy request. This year, she's going to vote yes.

"I don't think we have a choice," Stevens said. "We've got the school, now we've got to take care of it."

Stevens has two grandchildren in the Minnehaha Elementary School, and she decided to vote for the current levy request after learning more about it. "Class sizes will get worse" if the levy fails, she said.

Sitting next to Stevens was a voter who is still on the fence. Pat Johnson said she hasn't thought much about the levy. All of her grandchildren live in the Twin Cities or out of state, and she doesn't have ties to the school system any longer. Friend Cheryl Watson doesn't have children, and she also isn't decided about the levy.

In 2006, district officials held dozens of public meetings to push for the levy, but they were sparsely attended. This year, they have trimmed the schedule to three meetings. But the first meeting, held in Silver Bay, drew just 13 people.

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