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Forum editorial: Moorhead's money dilemma sobering

The budget crunch confronting Moorhead public schools is sobering, with a budget deficit looming in two years even after $4.5 million in costs have been slashed. More tough decisions lie in store for school officials - and probably voters, who se...

The budget crunch confronting Moorhead public schools is sobering, with a budget deficit looming in two years even after $4.5 million in costs have been slashed. More tough decisions lie in store for school officials - and probably voters, who seem likely to be asked to support an operating levy, a tool many struggling Minnesota districts are considering.

Many factors have come together to cause the dire financial picture and grim forecast. The Moorhead district's finances were healthy a decade ago and have deteriorated over time, allowing the unhappy to have their pick of excuses, villains or circumstances to blame.

To touch upon some, we might begin with the abolition of Minnesota's general education property tax levy six years ago by former Gov. Jesse Ventura, followed by a three-year plateau in state financial support. Add to that falling enrollments and expenses rising faster than revenues, as local districts increasingly were forced to fend for themselves.

Enrollments, of course, are outside the control of administrators and school board members. Expenses are another matter. Two spending trends stand out in a recent examination by Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova. On the surface, both can be considered prudent investments in the future.

Because costs associated with people comprise the vast bulk of a school district's expenses, they inevitably explain much. To its credit, the board invested more in its educators, increasing salaries to help attract and keep the best teaching talent. Although staffing levels declined slightly, a series of raises for teachers during good times added significantly to the district's costs. So have mandates for special education, and a state that has foisted more of the tab for maintenance, health and safety upon local districts.

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More perversely, and curiously, costs associated with buildings and grounds jumped 60 percent from 2000 to 2008, a rise that happened despite a reconfiguration from 11 to seven buildings during that time. Despite trimming 50 positions, costs nonetheless escalated due to rising fuel prices and - most disconcertingly - inefficient cooling and heating systems. Viewed from the cold-eyed perspective of a cost-benefit analysis, the new buildings are a mixed success. That's putting it charitably.

But the district's buildings now are in place. So is a future of three more years of flat state financial support, with enrollments predicted to dip and expenses to rise. Something will have to accommodate for that grim set of numbers. Or, more precisely, someone. Moorhead taxpayers, stay tuned.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper's Editorial Board.

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