Friday, November 24, 2006

Rural Schools and the Local Economy

Excellent essay from the Fillmore County Journal. (H/T to our friends over at Bluestream Prairie)

Essay: Rural schools and the local economy
By Tom Driscoll

Frost has burnt the bluff grass prairie-gold and red. Barely any green left on trees as even the near-black cedars have shed color. And despite an occasional day-or-two of wind warmed by the sun, weeks of unseasonably cool, gloomy weather slowly freezes the soil, driving ice crystals down, turning fall into winter. As the heat moves ever toward the cold, frost expands deeper and deeper, buckling anything that isn't anchored to the soft, warm sub-terrain.

Consider then JFK's often quoted economic analogy, that a rising tide lifts all boats, and re-imagine the odd inverse, an imperceptible upheaval, hard as concrete, powerful as a drifting continent, of frozen soil. Not a warm tide of economic prosperity, but winter.

The economic landscape of rural schools - here in Fillmore County and across the Nation - seems sometimes to be stuck in a long winter. And as cold persists, the frost creeps deeper, eventually prying-up the very foundations of a rural education system designed long ago to resist the destructive force of inaction.

Consolidation as a means of addressing the fundamental issue of small rural schools, that is, the inefficiency of delivering educational services to a small number of students in many locations instead of a larger number of students in fewer locations, began in the late-1800s, but really took hold in the form of local action on a national-scale in the 1950s. Now, almost 60-years-later, consolidated schools everywhere are asking for action to be taken again as the proverbial frost permeates rural economies.

Positive economic news in Fillmore County is often measured in single-digit job-growth, mainly in the agriculture, manufacturing and service sectors. Negative news comes with the announcement of far more job-losses. Towns with a certain je ne sais quoi like Lanesboro can reinvent themselves into a tourist boutique, but there is certainly not enough je ne sais quoi to salvage all the small towns in need of an economic boost.

The link between the rising global economic tide and the deepening frost in rural Minnesota is implicit. Small farms give way to ever-larger operations. Small town manufacturing evaporates only to rain down in some far-away country where plentiful labor is dirt cheap. Towns lose the grocery and hardware stores, restaurants, doctors, dentists, plumbers, garages, residents and school kids. The pattern, easily recognized by now, has become more-or-less an accepted fact of rural life. Increasingly, small town wage earners commute to-and-from employment in La Crosse, Rochester, Winona, or even farther, to the Twin-Cities, where salaries and benefits are good. According to the Socioeconomic Profile annexed to the 2006 Fillmore County Comprehensive Plan, 89-percent of workers commute to other towns. While back on Main Street, small businesses struggle, and often fail, to compete with big-boxes in those same distant cities: Wal-Mart to be sure, Target, Menards, Econo-Foods, to name just a few.

The exact effect of America's economic reconfiguration on rural school districts is difficult to define. And it is the subject of much debate. Some assert that the local school is the main economic engine powering small towns, citing the combined economic force of teachers, students and parents, especially those who actually live in the district. Indeed, as a 2005 USDA report, The Role of Education in the Social and Economic Viability of Rural America, points out, "In many rural counties, the education system is often the largest employer."

The same report identifies a multiplier effect, a positive economic spin-off of indirect jobs and spending caused by direct employment at the school district. Lending credence to the economic-engine-argument, the study found that in a rural Oklahoma school district employing 332 teachers, administrative staff and support personnel, an additional 195-jobs were created outside the education sector, amounting to a 1.56-multiplier.

But critics of rural school districts are hard to convince. They cite the perennial demand for more funding, more taxpayer-funded levies, levy-overrides, especially in view of small town demographics: smaller families, fewer students, a large number of taxpayers on fixed retirement incomes with no children in school. They complain about unequal state funding formulas that fail to adjust for the fact that the per-pupil cost of educating students in small schools is higher than educating them in large schools. Data maps offered by the Minnesota Rural Education Association show that, largely due to insufficient tax capacity of business and agriculture in rural areas, property-owners in southeastern Minnesota, like property-owners in counties throughout the state, pay 3-to-4 times the minimum rate to provide $100 for one pupil, a situation they claim could be "equalized" across all districts with increased state aid.

There are 1,895-public, non-charter schools operating in Minnesota's 339-school districts employing 52,479-teachers to educate 828,364-students in grades K-to-12. About one-quarter of all students attend school in rural districts. Statewide, school funding and achievement issues range from the rising cost of teacher health care and student transportation to dwindling enrollment; from curriculum and test scores, to the demand for technology upgrades and the need to address the problem of crumbling, often obsolete buildings and facilities. According to a 2002 report, Small Schools Under Siege, prepared by the Mankato-based Center for Rural Policy and Development, a clear link exists between school district size and quality of district infrastructure: "As the enrollment of the school district decreased, so did the conditions of its facilities," the report states.

So what can be done to begin to thaw this seemingly intractable ground? At the extremes, school closures, redistricting and consolidation of already consolidated districts into county elementary, middle and secondary schools are options some appear willing to consider. Such solutions might of course provide economies of scale, but would not address the core issue for most small communities: the community itself.

Issues of community and taxes fuel the sometimes heated local debate over schools. After the failure of two earlier school referenda, in September, Kingsland voters approved a referendum to build an elementary school addition to the high school in Spring Valley, and to make improvements to the middle school in Wykoff. Voters in Spring Valley generally supported the proposal, while 63-percent of Wykoff voters opposed it. Now, all voters stand to benefit from the improved facilities paid for by all district property owners.

In the general election 3-weeks-ago, Chatfield voters considered a 2-option building referendum, the first a proposal to buy land and construct a new elementary school; the alternative, to expand the current high school. Both options were defeated by narrow margins, revealing a fault line dividing the community.

A few years ago, Rushford-Peterson district voters soundly rejected a referendum to construct a new high school. In the meantime, the current building, 100-years-old this year, requires considerable, and mounting, major maintenance and renovation.

It is no secret that referendum campaigns can be divisive, often pitting farm versus in-town property-owners, retirees versus families with young children. District vs. district. School vs. school. Academics vs. athletics. Music vs. math. Student vs. student. There are in fact often so many issues in play that a seemingly straightforward ballot question, whether-or-not to build a new facility or raise pupil-funding, sounds like rocket science. Proponents and opponents, faced with making complicated economic arguments, often revert to moral blackmail. Do this for the children. Or, This will hurt senior citizens. Or, Education is too important. Or, Taxes are too high.

Few dare to deny that a good basic education and adequate educational infrastructure is vital. And taxes, by definition, are always too high. Statements of the obvious are just that. No one wins when banalities fail to address real problems underlying the declining health of rural communities.

According to the USDA report cited above, "If the education sector increases or decreases in size, the economic health of the community is greatly affected. For the attraction of industrial firms, businesses, and residents, it is crucial that the area have quality education. Often overlooked is the fact that a prosperous education sector also contributes to the economic health of the community."

The Center for Rural Policy and Development points to the referendum-process as proof of education-funding inequality between rural and non-rural areas of the state. Property-owners in small districts with low enrollment provide significantly more funding in support of their schools through referendum than any other size district, which are classified much like state sport divisions, one-A-through five-A. Taxpayers in the smallest 20-percent of districts pay through referendum 63.7-percent more than the state average.

Though nearly all rural districts funds their schools through these "unequalized" referenda, there is a caveat: districts that raise insufficient or low amounts by referendum report more problems with "infrastructure, resources and staffing," according to the CRPD, than same-size districts with higher referendum amounts. Put another way, small district property-owners pay more by referendum than larger district residents, yes, but if the amount is too low, it fails to solve the problem.

Frost runs deep. The problem of adequately funding rural schools is a reflection of the overall economic health of rural areas faced with a withering tax base and rising costs. For small districts considering going to the voters anytime soon, the experts recommend tackling the community-health issue head-on by collecting economic data and developing a snapshot of the relationship between the school and the area it serves. Involvement of local business and individual citizens through public meetings and focus groups is considered critical in both assessing real needs and developing broad support before taking action.

A key point to ponder here is the discussion that schools are actually economic engines in our communities. I could not agree more. In most towns throughout the district, the school is the largest employer. When we consolidate schools, educators, administrators, janitors, and others lose jobs. Towns also lose their identity. Unless you feel a strong connection to Litchfield-Dassel-Cokato-Atwater-Grove City (McLeod County North?), or Annandale-Maple Lake-Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted (Wright County West?). Having grown up in small town USA, we feel strong bonds to our communities. While adding more schools may start to solve some fiscal problems, our small rural communities will continue to die.

These campaigns can be divisive. I witnessed the divisiveness while campaigning throught our Senate District with 5 levies on the ballots. Some say labeling these campaigns for our children is a moral argument. I disagree to a certain extent.

Until we push our elected officials to find alternative funding models for funding education in Greater Minnesota, this problem will grow.

After the recent election, Phil Krinkie, a 16 year GOPer from Lino Lakes had this to say after his recent loss, quoting former New York mayor Ed Koch.

"The voters have spoken and now they must be punished."

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