Funding woes force closure of Forest Lake elementary school

The Central Montessori School has been beset by funding cuts.
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Central Montessori Elementary School in Forest Lake will close following a school board vote on Thursday evening.

Members of the Forest Lake Area Schools board reluctantly took the decision to shut the school at the end of this school year, in order to help meet a $2 million shortfall in the district's 2018-19 budget.

The Forest Lake Times reports there were tears at the meeting as the decision was made, which will mean its 115 students will be moved to other area schools.

Education funding is a hot topic in Minnesota right now thanks to the impasse at the State Capitol, with Forest Lake Schools superintendent Steve Massey telling Bring Me The News that the closure is mainly the result of years of chronic underfunding of schools.

He cited a study by Schools for Equity in Education that found a $2,500 per pupil gap in Minnesota education funding compared to what it would be if it had kept up with inflation over the past 25 years.

This real-terms reduction in state funding has contributed to the the school district having to make $7.5 million in budget cuts over the past four years.

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Also having an impact has been the failed attempts to increase the local property tax levy to boost schools funding. Massey said that the district hasn't won a voter-approved operating referendum in 11 years.

The writing was on the wall in November for Central Montessori – which has existed since 1992 – when locals voted against a levy in the latest referendum.

The school has seen dwindling enrollment the past 15 years, which also affected its funding levels, with the Times noting its current enrollment of 115 was down from its peak of 193 in 2003.

But Massey says the other funding cuts the district has had to make "far exceed those necessitated by declining enrollment."

Central Montessori is one of 7 elementary schools in the Forest Lake Area district.

Dayton's push for education funding

Governor Mark Dayton has recently been crusading for an increase in education funding, with Forest Lake just one of 59 school districts facing a budget shortfall in 2018-19.

On Thursday he vetoed a Republican tax bill as he holds out for a $139 million increase in the education budget ahead of Monday's deadline.

He argues that the state is still suffering from $2 billion of school cuts made under former Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

But Republicans in the Legislature say that school districts haven't been using money wisely enough, as well as in some cases agreeing to significant salary hikes demanded by teachers' unions.

They also argue that a one-time funding boost would see districts facing more problems next year, when the funding rug is pulled from under them.

Massey said the Governor's $139 million funding ask would have helped the district for the upcoming year, but "it does not solve the long-term problem."

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