Even with stimulus, schools still making budget cuts

A new reed
Rachel Dieter, 15, installs a new reed on her baritone saxophone during a music lesson at Bud's Music Center in Hopkins. The Hopkins School Board has been considering whether to cut fifth grade band and sixth grade orchestra to balance the district's budget.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

The districts know the money is coming; they just don't know when or what strings might be attached.

"It does complicate matters a bit," said John Toop, director of business services for the Hopkins School District, which is predicting a $1.1 million deficit.

Music lesson
Rachel Dieter, 15, right, plays her baritone saxophone during a music lesson with Chuck Armstrong at Bud's Music Center in Hopkins.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

Schools face upcoming deadlines on matters like teacher hiring, which means they have to pass their own local budgets in the next two months. That also means their own budgets will have to be set before any federal money starts flowing, and even before a state budget is in place.

Toop said that makes it hard to answer people's questions.

"They're saying, 'Well, we're getting all this money the government's printing for us, what are you going to do with it?' And we don't have those answers yet," Toop said.

Toop added that he doesn't know anyone in Minnesota education circles who knows any specifics on the federal stimulus.

The Hopkins school budget has been a recent topic of discussion in the Dieter family. Debbi Jo Dieter is president of the Hopkins Band Boosters and the mother of three musically talented daughters.

Empty bathroom
Bathrooms on the third floor of Annandale Middle School have been stripped of nearly everything. The third floor is unusable because the stairwell doesn't meet fire codes.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

One proposed option for balancing Hopkins' budget is to cut fifth grade band and sixth grade orchestra. The Dieter girls are too old to be directly affected, but they still worry about it.

Rachel Dieter, 15, remembers how crucial it was to start band in fifth grade.

"I think it also gives you more confidence in your instrument," she said. "You have that confidence that you can ask questions in the smaller group as a fifth grader, so you wouldn't have to be confused later on."

The Hopkins School Board heard more budget options Thursday night -- including one that does not cut band -- which board members indicated support for. But if band is, in fact, saved at Hopkins, it won't be because the federal stimulus saved it. It will be because the board found something else to cut.

Annandale superintendent
Annandale superintendent Steve Niklaus says he hopes to put another bond referendum to voters in the next year, asking them for a tax increase to pay for a new school building.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

Another reason districts aren't counting on stimulus money to balance their books is that the money will only last for two years.

Minnesota Deputy Education Commissioner Chas Anderson said the education part of the stimulus appears more destined to soften local budget troubles, not fix them.

"It may help alleviate some of the initial budget constraints they have today, but it's not something they can thoroughly rely on as future funding," Anderson said.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty said on his weekly radio show Friday morning that the stimulus will likely mean a complete reworking, and even redirecting of education money in his proposed budget.

Empty hallway
The main hallway on the third floor of Annandale Middle School is empty, except for a few stored desks. The district can't use that floor because the stairs don't meet fire codes.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

The stimulus also directs money to special education and building construction, but not all details are known there, either. One big question is how many restrictions will be placed on states and schools for spending the money.

If, for example, a school can score a new roof in the name of energy efficiency, that's all well and good. But what if that school had even more urgent needs that didn't qualify for any stimulus money?

Steve Niklaus's ears perked up a couple months ago when he heard school construction being included in negotiations. He's superintendent of Annandale schools, where two months ago, voters rejected a $45 million tax increase to pay for a new school. The district also has a $900,000 deficit.

Niklaus only has to climb a few stairs to make his case for a new building. The third floor of the Annandale Middle School is empty. The joke is that it's haunted. But the real reason it's not used is that the only escape routes are open, wooden staircases dating to the 1920s, a big fire code no-no.

Annandale Middle School
The original section of Annandale Middle School was build in the early 1920s. Since then, five additions have been built to accomodate growing enrollments.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

"The local law enforcement people use it for training for their SWAT teams for public buildings," added Niklaus, as he walked down an empty hallway.

Niklaus isn't sure the school construction stimulus money will put a huge dent in his needs. What the district really needs is a new building, but Niklaus said he's heard the money can only go for existing buildings. And the latest estimate he's heard is that all Minnesota schools will have to split $27 million for construction.

Still, even if he only ends up with enough for some new windows or a boiler, he'll take it.

"If we can make this more energy efficient to save on costs, that's a real plus for us," Niklaus said. "It'll make a difference, but it will be a small difference."

Niklaus is convinced that, even with stimulus money on the way, the only way Annandale will get that new school is if voters approve a tax hike.

That's why his bigger hope is that the stimulus does what it's supposed to do -- improves the economy enough to make voters more willing to vote "yes" next time around.

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