March 14, 2001

I remember how my mother butchered chickens as she got older. Gone were the fine cuts, the classic divisions into legs, thighs, breasts and back meat. Flailing her hatchet at our intended dinner, she chopped pieces that took on odd shapes—no two alike. And, when we were served the disassembled, floured and fried bird, it somehow didn’t taste very good.

Oh, how we’d like the butchering that’s being done on our school budget to be refined, elegant—totally agreeable and palatable. Yet, I fear no matter how it’s done, the result will look all too much like my mother’s less than handy work. So, let’s agree on this: it’s not going to be pretty.

Education, as we know it in the Little Falls area, is going to change in major ways. It has to. We don’t have the money and we won’t have the money in the near future. Our kids will have poorer schools to go to and many working in education will have their lives disrupted. What good can come from this?

The best is a resolve to put our schools in a position where a “rainy day fund” or “nest egg” is developed so that this does not happen again. Then, when the years of lean return, we’ll have the resources to transition through them by modifying some programs and allowing attrition to take its course, rather than having to hack and chop and cut deeply into kids and personnel. As a community, can we resolve to do this? To keep watch until our funds are in a secure position?

I’m confused by some of the cutting that is proposed. If you hack the music program in half, will there be anything functional left? If you chop out sports in the early grades, does Little Falls give up being a contender for years to come? Do these have to be the sad, unavoidable choices?

If I had my druthers, I’d defy the law and go into debt saving most of what is going on in the schools currently and ask for more tax money. But, that’s easy for me to say because I believe education is a necessity. That’s the problem here. If it were for our defense, we’d readily go into debt. If it were to save our lives through expensive operations that we couldn’t pay for, we’d do it in a minute. In the end, we really don’t think education is that important around here or, it seems, around the state.

And you know what else? You can’t always decisively measure the benefits of education—through testing or by any other means. It’s more like Research and Development money spent in big companies or advertising dollars that don’t at all line up with so many new customers. Education is a somewhat vague investment that we nonetheless realize always has a big payoff. It’s too bad we’re not willing to risk a lot more for the future of our children.

And many older people think they get no benefits from it—educating the young. That’s wrong. You don’t get good doctors, lawyers, trades people to come and live in an area if you can’t offer good education to their children. They’ll go somewhere else and when you need to go to the hospital, who will be there to meet you? Good —great—education is an important industry in every community.

But, to our surprise or no one’s surprise (it’s hard to tell), the school district crisis parallels all that’s going on in the state, the nation, the world. Good times are apparently over. The bubble is bursting. Stocks are going south. You rarely hear anyone humming, let alone singing, “Happy days are here again ……”

Not only is Governor Ventura hell bent on downsizing the University of Minnesota, President Bush claims that only a deep tax cut will save us from disaster. The strongest foreign markets—Japan and Germany—are either flat or falling, along with our own struggling NASDAQ and Dow. A hike in energy costs and the disappointment over the performance of Internet and high tech industries has most everyone muttering. They appear to want to take their ball and go home, hide out …

… to fight another day. Which we should get wise to. Joseph wasn’t any Harvard educated economist when he told the Pharaoh, “Seven years of plenty and seven years of lean.” The trick is to make sure the granaries are full the next time around.

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