Soon, the Winona Public Schools administration will address budget cuts. Part of that presentation will be about information gathered from the public in the recent survey conducted on the school district’s web site. That feedback, plus input from the district’s unions on their expectations, and a report from a committee of school administrators—Community Ed Director Margaret Schild, wife of school board member Steve Schild, is facilitator—will determine budget cuts.
Readers new to school budget cuts should know that once the public sees where the budget will be cut (sports, arts), there will be general dismay, followed by a district-wide vote on a levy referendum for more funding.
Some members of the school board argued that they should lead the budget-cutting effort. That is a laudable position and is how the budget should be determined. But the administration prevailed, and the argument is now framed by unions and employees, leaving management—the board—with no dog in the fight.
Let’s talk about the public input allowed by the school district—the online survey. It is a fundamental truth that whoever controls input also controls output. A look at the online survey makes it clear that the public is allowed to comment only on what the unions and administration want them to—they have framed the questions.
Nowhere in the survey is the information that the public needs to be able to make intelligent comments and decisions. Essentially the survey demands emotional, not analytical, responses.
For instance, on class sizes: Dist. 861 has the lowest class sizes in the Big Nine. The district does not explain how much extra money this lower number costs us in salaries for extra teachers and aides. The survey asks if we should raise class sizes, without saying that doing so would save money in reduced salaries.
Another factor to be considered in determining class sizes is whether low class sizes make a difference in our children’s academic performance. According to annual state assessments, it could be successfully argued that our expensive lower class sizes have not produced measurable academic success for our students. A third of our students cannot pass reading and simple math tests; we can hardly call that a success.
The survey asked participants how they feel about the number of buildings the district owns, without saying that closing elementary schools now will mean that in the near future, the district will most likely be asking us to fund a new building to house all the elementary students in the district—like the middle school and high school buildings.
Most important, however, is the omission of any information about the district’s present finances: how does salary structure for union members compare to other districts, and how does the district’s budget compare to others’.
On the Coalition of Minnesota Businesses web site, readers can find statistics for the 2008-09 school year. (The Minnesota Department of Education online data is from that year as well, and although not as detailed, reports numbers in the ballpark.) Winona spends $10,346 per pupil, compared to $9,063 statewide. This is much more than other Big Nine districts (and more than Edina!): Albert Lea $9,728, Austin $9,125, Faribault $8,757, Mankato $8,553, Owatonna $8,509, Red Wing $8,678, Rochester $8,128. St. Paul and Minneapolis, with huge inner city populations, spend $10,809 and $11,692 respectively.
Bottom line? How can anyone determine where to cut a budget without knowing the particulars of the budget, what effect the cuts will have, how much other state districts spend, and whether what we spend ensures that our students are learning what is expected of them?
Our elected representatives—the school board—must be our informed voice in this matter. An unscientific collection of data from an online survey is meaningless.