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'We're at the bake sale level' - School leaders discuss financial crisis at meeting

Grace Keliher, governmental relations director for the Minnesota School Board Association, says school board members have a difficult year ahead of them.

Keliher presented a list of local, state and federal issues that will directly affect public schools at the MMBA Fall Meeting Wednesday night at Bemidji High School.

"We need all the help we can get," said Keliher. "We're at the bake sale level."

Keliher presented state budget problems, as well as the status of the No Child Left Behind Act. She urged the school leaders to make a commitment to reach out to their local legislators for change.

Keliher outlined a list of four methods for schools to receive federal grant dollars. The methods would be used by failing schools that consistently do not make Adequate Yearly Progress.

"Schools need to be aware there are huge strings attached with such federal funds," said Bemidji Area Schools District Superintendent Jim Hess. "You need to have a good grant writer to achieve these competitive grants."

Gov. Tim Pawlenty's unallotment plan, which called for the delay of $1.8 billion in state payments to K-12 education, had many school officials taken by surprise this summer.

"It's going to be a long time before the governor pays schools back," said Keliher.

Keliher said 62 school districts in Minnesota are considering operating levy referenda this fall, compared to 42 districts last year.

Public schools are seeing a 3.84 percent decrease in enrollment, compared to charter schools, which are seeing a 170 percent increase in enrollment, said Keliher.

An ongoing debate has circulated at both the state and local levels as to whether a district school should share services, such as extracurricular activities, with charter schools.

"In tough economic times you have to think carefully about sharing services," said Keliher. "Do you want to create more burdens and more paperwork for your school?"

Several MSBA members discussed ideas for ways to make their voices heard at the state level.

"You can't go to St. Paul and whine and cry," said Gary Lee, School Board director of the Fertile-Beltrami High School in Fertile, Minn. "You need to invite them to your school and offer them solutions."

"The bottom line is we need to make sure every kid in the state gets great education, whether it takes having a bake sale to get a math book," said Hess.