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Investing in our future

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opinion Brainerd, 56401
Brainerd MN 506 James St. / PO Box 974 56401

During the Great Depression — the worst financial and economic times in our nation’s history — our leaders had the foresight to invest in education. Programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) not only put people to work, but also built schools, libraries, financed literacy programs and fed and clothed children.

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A strong education system provides an educated workforce that businesses seek. Minnesota has long had one of the more well-educated workforces in the country and that has given our state the highest number of Fortune 500 companies per capita in the nation. Education can pull people out of poverty and open new doors of opportunity. Education will be critical for our future research and development projects. That could be anything from alternative energy breakthrough to a cure for cancer.

We need bold action and investments in our education system now. For too long, we’ve watched as our schools have had to increase class sizes, cut bus routes, increase fees and cut programs our children need.

While many may point to schools and claim they’re wasteful with taxpayer dollars, the Brainerd School District has not been. Taxpayers deserve accountability and wise use of school funds. Our district has done well in this area. Mark Ronnei, member of the Citizens Budget Committee, which reviewed the school district’s finances recently stated, “The current administration has a very clear understanding of district finances. The district is doing a good (not perfect) job of being good stewards of taxpayer resources.” Accountability for taxpayer dollars is something we all expect.

I have met with educational leadership and attended legislative meetings around the state regarding current education funding. It’s clear to me our schools are in dire need of additional funding. More than a third of Minnesota’s schools are going to voters to renew existing levies or approve new ones, the most since 2001.

My strong support of the two levy questions on the ballot this November is based on my 34 years in the classroom, a parent and grandparent, a taxpayer, and as a legislator who has fought but still watched education funding dwindle over the last decade. While some may attempt to discredit my support for these levies due to my time as a teacher — and I look forward to a day when we don’t need to justify our support for education — education funding simply hasn’t kept up with inflation and has declined by 14 percent since 2003. We would need to increase funding by $690 per student just to get back to 2003 levels.

The Brainerd School District is seeking the approval of two ballot questions. Question No. 1 renews the Brainerd Public School District’s existing levy of $199 per student, which is dramatically lower than the state average of $936. If question No. 1 passes, the levy is renewed for 10 years, with no inflationary increase and no tax increase. Again, because this is a renewal of an existing levy, any property tax increase will not be a result of the approval of this levy.

Question No. 2 seeks an additional $200 in funding per student for 5 years with no inflationary increases. Approving this would mean an average tax increase of $4.68 per month. If question No. 2 is not approved, Brainerd schools will have to absorb $1 million in cuts; if neither question is approved, our schools will have to face cuts of more than $2 million — forcing increased class sizes, elimination of staff, increasing fees or elimination of sports and activities, and expanding the “no bus” zone.

While these levies are our best course of action right now, they’re like slapping a Band-Aid on a broken leg. They were never intended to be used like they are now — to fund basic needs. It’s unfortunate that our broken school funding system has led our schools to this point. Our future approach to school funding needs to start by asking what students need to succeed and move forward from there.

We’ve put our schools at a breaking point. At a certain point the only thing that can be done with less is less. Those who came before us invested in education and our future. Now, for the first time in history, we may leave our country and our children worse off, rather than better off, like we were left. Education is the way to reverse that trend. As highly respected former school board member Ruth Gmeinder said, “Education is the greatest gift we can give our children.”

I feel that approving these levies is the wisest, fiscally responsible, and best investment in our future that we can make. On Nov. 8, I will be voting Yes, Yes.

REP. JOHN WARD is a former teacher who is the Democratic state House member for District 12A. He lives in Brainerd.

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