With enrollment continuing to decline, how can we keep spending money we don't have?

As do the other residents, taxpayers, employees and various stakeholders of District # 593; I also care very much about the issues and challenges we face together, the decisions to be made, as well as the direction to be taken by our district. As a representative for those afore mentioned groups, I attempt to reach the decisions for the votes I cast with as much accurate, complete, and pertinent data as possible. It is my conviction this information and data should be as objective, quantifiable and unbiased as possible.

    Because of this (from a personal perspective) I was disappointed to read the headline and some of the content of an article published by the Crookston Times on Friday August 3rd.  The headline includes “Bakken Votes Against”. Other content of the article included “the later vote wasn’t unanimous” and “Messages left for Bakken by the Times seeking comment on his no vote hadn’t been returned by press time Friday”. Let us briefly address these statements before I discuss some of the financial concerns faced by District #593.

    I did not cast a no vote as is related in the story, I abstained from the vote. The vote as recorded was 5-0. Anyone following the agendas and actions of our district is well aware there are occasional non-unanimous or “split votes” taking place – this is a reflection of the diversity and varying perspectives of the residents of our district. As regards the other representation that I was unresponsive to the Times staff, the following facts should be shared. Representatives of KROX were also at the board meeting and asked for clarification of my vote, which I immediately provided. No attempt was made by Times staff requesting information from me at or following the meeting, or during the evening. I did have phone messages left the following day while I was at work. Most employers discourage employees from taking non work related calls while at work. Despite that fact, as soon as I got the message from the Times at work, I did return their call. Upon phoning however, it was related to me that the individual had left for the day. I trust we all desire to be treated in a courteous and respectful manner – and that factual representations are shared with the public, we can do better.

    That being said, this situation can provide the opportunity to begin the open factual dialog I believe is necessary in regard to the future fiscal wellbeing of District #593. The topic of this particular principal hiring is just one small microcosm of the present and future challenges we face. So what are some of those facts?

    Some include; 1) the fact that very recently (2010-2011) our district did operate with two principals while the third was on leave. 2) During that time, the board received much feedback of how well employees responded to aide in the continued smooth operations of the school. 3) Our district currently utilizes three classroom buildings – with their own individual principals. It is my experience and understanding that the space and design of the Highland and High School Buildings will accommodate the total enrollment of District #593. 4) From the June statistics provided by the business manager of our district enrollment at those schools was: High School – 554 students, Highland – 459 students Washington – 191 students. 5) These numbers will fluctuate from year to year, but they represent an approximate 50-50 split between the grade 7-12 configuration at the High School and the K-6 configuration shared between Washington and Highland. It can be concluded our current arrangement represents a redundancy of staff, as well as space. Isn’t it our responsibility to explore opportunities to achieve economic viability while still providing the same service?

    When I first began serving on the board in January of2007, our district had approximately $2.5 in published reserves. Prior to, and since then, we have consistently deficient spent in an attempt to keep things the same. Also when I was first elected to the board, I was provided a binder containing the long range goals and visions of the board. This included reduction of staff through attrition during declining enrollment. This particular example then appears to be exactly that type of scenario. The former principal resigned – there would be no forced loss of personnel. We may also bear in mind the configuration arrangement that same principal left here to enter into. When combined, individual “smaller” decisions such as these adds up to a much larger total budgetary impact. Unfortunately, at the end of each year, the books (budget) have to be balanced.

    In the headlines during the last 6 years, much has been made of “CUTS” in district #593; cuts amounting to as much as a purported $1,000,000/year. Can anyone name some of those “cuts”? As a board member I have voted to approve cuts – only to see those same “cuts” reinstated before they take effect. I have witnessed savings in fuel costs within in the $200,000 – $300,000 range label “cuts”. At the same time, it is a fact that our enrollment continued to decline. We still have pretty much the same amount of staffing and structure as 2007. Do we have the will or urgency to “right size” our district?

    As regards our future budgets, we should heed the information being shared by other board members as well. Despite the passage of the referendum this past fall, it will still be a challenge to break even. As our board chair has shared on several occasions, despite the fact we passed a $1,000,000 levy it is projected we will only realize approximately $50,000 in unreserved revenues - the first year into our new ten year levy! This does not account for any future inflationary factors and following nine years. It does not account for the rounds of negotiations due to begin. Finally, we should keep in mind the fact that one of our three present district levies is due to expire in a year or two.

    Some people like to point their finger at “The State” and claim they are not doing their part – the truth is; we are making our own spending decisions at the local level. Others have lamented the amount of monies held back by “The State” to balance their book as a reason for our difficulties. The truth is; all other districts are faced with those same challenges. Another fact is; we (the tax payers) are the state. If we want more money for education then it has to come from some other part of the state budget – for, as we know – those books aren’t balancing too well. Any shift at the state level would be a cut for whatever program it happened to be taken from.

    Through these times other districts have risen to the challenge. They have changed, and made some of the tough decisions that are now required. It seems we are reluctant to change. The world we are preparing our students for is now GLOBAL. We are competing globally, whether we realize it or not. Change in that “global” world is ever present and accelerating; it is happening. Are we prepared? Can we adapt to, or evolve with our environment? Is it good to teach our children they don’t have to change?

    These are difficult topics and issues, they call for tough decisions.  Do they need to be made? Can they be made? The answer to both is yes. Our newSuperintendent very recently came through some of these same challenging circumstances. It is our understanding the Pine Island district was able to pass a referendum, improve academic performance, align staff and combine positions. At the same time, they were able to increase their reserve from $200,000 to $2,500,000. The goal then should be; that some of those successes be replicated in Crookston.

    One of the things most paramount to that goal is ample, accurate, and factual information provided to the district stakeholders; as well as a considered, engaged, and open dialog with and through the public. It is the duty of the district to share it, the media to report it accurately, and the duty of the residents to apprise themselves of it.

    As was stated earlier, there is a diverse population (and associated perspectives) within our district. Opinions on what to do may vary based upon the information. To paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “You (We) are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts”. The fact is: at the end of the day, the books have to balance. Based on the facts and discussion here; do we still want to remain status quo? If we choose to stay the same – or even want “more” as some suggest: how will it be financed?