by Frances Edstrom
We are on the verge of choosing a new superintendent of schools for Dist. 861 at the same time that we are once again faced with a huge budget deficit.
For anyone who has followed public school news in Winona for the last several years, this scenario is all too familiar.
It makes one wonder if it matters who is chosen as the head administrator in the district, or if the public school system, not only in Winona, but nationwide, is permanently mired in a cycle of overspending, cutting, overspending and cutting and ultimate destruction.
The district seems to be in permanent talks of passing a referendum, but no sooner do the taxpayers pass a referendum, than it is revealed that it still will not be enough money. It's like having a kid in college.
Money disappearing into the deep, dark hole of public school financing is not the most worrisome aspect of this constant tax and spend cycle.
Recently, we have built the now not so new Middle School, but even that has come at a price more than dollars can measure. What began life as an answer to an advertised overcrowding became in reality the instrument to accelerate the dismantling of the neighborhood elementary schools.
Two local charter schools, Bluffview Montessori and Riverway Learning Center, based on alternative educational philosophies, were soon joined by Ridgeway and Dakota, formerly public schools, as Dist. 861 began its move away from neighborhood schools. This is correctly seen as money (students) leaving Dist. 861, but certainly was not unexpected by the district administration.
Of course the loss of those students, many of whom will not reenter the system even for high school, creates more of a financial problem for the district. Which leads to more talks of closing schools"except for Rollingstone, which was built not for need, but through political manipulation.
And while building new schools and closing elementaries is what grabs the headlines, more dismantling of our public schools has been going on behind the scenes.
Post Secondary Enrollment Options, PSEO, a boon to our local higher ed institutions, is eating away at the quality of our high school at the same time that it draws dollars from the district and redirects them to other institutions. If the students at the top leave to pursue classes at colleges, there is less pressure on the public schools to offer more rigorous courses of study for the upperclassmen. We have already seen fewer foreign language courses offered, and there is widespread, pernicious lack of cohesion in delivery of what used to be core courses, blamed on the fact that schools must offer what kids want to take. What's next?
What we see happening in Dist. 861 is not a local issue, and it is not only the Winona Post that has been pointing out these problems. There is plenty of political blame being spewed around"it's the conservatives, it's the liberals, it's the teachers unions, it's the school board, it's teacher training, it's the State, it's the Congress, it's kids, it's parents, it's senior citizens.
Whatever it is, it is a reality. Enormous changes are happening in the public school system, too many of them reactive rather than proactive. Are Dist. 861's problems simply a part of the larger problem? Can a person with strength and vision actually come into the district and stop the tax and spend merry-go-round?
What are our expectations of a new superintendent? A sea change or merely a seat change?