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A lively education discussion in Dent

"A civil rights issue" is how Perham-Dent school Superintendent Tamara Uselman described public education, at a meeting with the Dent City Council Oct. 9.

The meeting between school officials and the Dent council featured wide-ranging discussion--from the future of the Dent school to the increased levy referendum that will be on the ballot Nov. 4.

"All citizens have a fundamental right to an education," said Uselman, in discussing the levy. Because of that mandate, 90 percent of all Minnesota school districts have, or are seeking, increased levy to operate public schools.

"We were one of the last schools to go after an increased levy, we hung on as long as we could," said school activities and buildings-grounds director Fred Sailer. "We also benefitted because our enrollment didn't decline as fast as some of the other schools."

Unless funding keeps pace, education becomes "the haves and the have nots." In urban school districts like Minneapolis, said Sailer, public education is deteriorating--while parents with financial resources send their kids to private schools. "What's left are under-funded public schools," said Sailer.

Dent Councilman Bob Biddle recalled a similar situation--but in a rural North Dakota district. Cuts pushed up class sizes, but it wasn't until the kids of "prominent" members of the community started to fall behind, that funding was finally increased.

"No teacher can handle a classroom of 35 little kids," said Biddle, stressing his concern that funding declines will push up class sizes.

"The wealthy and the influential will always take care of their own," said Sailer.

Dent Councilman Dan Nodsle is a critic of the state education funding formulas. He argues that increased funding from the state is crucial to take some of the burden off local property taxpayers.

"But I'm convinced that the powers that be down in St. Paul are more than willing to shut down the smaller districts--Frazee, New York Mills--and force consolidations into Perham, Detroit Lakes and Wadena," said Nodsle.

In the long run, Superintendent Uselman predicts more discussions at the legislature to consolidate administration. For example, the idea of a "county" school superintendent, to reduce administrative costs at each smaller district. Business managers shared by two or more districts is another likelihood.