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Editorial: Fewer students mean less state aid for Minnesota schools

With 168 students, the Lancaster (Minn.) School District has about half the enrollment that it did at its peak 30 years ago.

This has caused a steep decline in its state aid, which is based on a per-pupil formula.

Minnesota's school-funding plan also isn't kind to Lancaster in another way, at least when compared with North Dakota's method. In North Dakota, districts with a lot of farmland are considered property rich. But in Minnesota, farmland isn't taxed for schools. Rural properties are taxed on the value of the home, the garage and one acre. Seasonal recreational properties also aren't subject to school taxes.

"We're in a large district that is sparsely populated," Superintendent Brad Homstad said. "We bus an area of more than 100 square miles. That runs up the cost."

If Lancaster passes a referendum Nov. 2, the district would tax for $2,684 per pupil, one of the highest in the state and triple the state average. The district is asking voters to replace an expiring $677 per pupil levy with a $1,675 levy, with another levy of $1,009 also on the books.

Despite the jump, Homstad is encouraged by the school district's referendum history, which includes 70 percent approval for a renewal of the $1,009 referendum in 2006.

"That was a year when only 40 percent of referendums passed statewide," he said.

Lancaster's enrollment losses include about 25 students in the past five years, but projections are that the numbers will stabilize, Homstad said.

"We've been cutting the budget the last two years, but it's tough to cut much more when you're only a one-section (per grade) school already," Homstad said.

"It's a tough decision for the school board to ask patrons to dig deeper into their pockets. But our goal is to not just have a school, but have a great school."

Lancaster is one of 79 Minnesota schools with a referendum Nov. 2. Following is a look at others from the northwestern corner of the state:

- Crookston: The referendum seeks adding $731 per pupil, for a total of $1,332.

Superintendent Wayne Gilman said this would add $195 in taxes to the district's average-valued home of $78,000.

The district has lost about $1 million from a 188-student enrollment drop since 2003, Gilman said. State funding for Crookston has decreased by 8 percent since 2004, he said.

A defeated referendum could mean going from four sections to three in the grade schools and K-12 class sizes going from the 20s to the 30s, he said.

- Goodridge: Voters are being asked to renew the expiring $1,750 per pupil referendum passed seven years ago.

It received 76 percent approval in 2003. "It allowed us to expand preschool, offer all-day, every-day kindergarten, maintain small class sizes, offer a strong special ed program, good curriculum and facility repairs and maintenance," Superintendent Galen Clow said.

- Greenbush-Middle River: The referendum seeks a $1,400 per-pupil levy that would replace a $600 levy in the 2012-13 school year.

Superintendent Ron Ruud said the larger amount is because of the uncertainty of the future. "It won't go into effect for two years and then it's in effect for 10 years, so we're looking 12 years into the future," he said. "The board's premise is to not use it all, but to use whatever is needed for a balanced budget. We didn't want to go back to the voters five years down the road because the amount we asked for now is too low."

The school has lost 49 students over the past four years, with a projected kindergarten class of 18 replacing a senior class of 37 next year.

- Warroad: The referendum asks for a modest per pupil increase from $600 to $800. A taxpayer with a $100,000 home will pay an additional $57 per year.

The request comes on the heels of recent cost-reduction moves. Warroad went to a four-day week starting in the 2009-10 school year and cut the budget by $500,000, about 4 percent, for the current school year.

"I hope people realize we've tried to do things to save money," Superintendent Craig Oftedahl said. "We've cut more than some other districts in the area, and our fund balance is lower than most.

"And I don't anticipate seeing any more help from the state. In fact, if we could maintain the status quo from the state, I'd consider it a win."