Educators concerned about school funding

Minnesota Commissioner of Education Dr. Brenda Cassellius kicked off the meeting Thursday by noting the state Working Group on School Funding plans to focus on “students and student achievement.” Photo by Derrick Knutson

There was a general consensus among area educators, school board members and parents who attended a public meeting on school funding Thursday at the North Branch Area Education Center: something needs to be changed about how money is allocated to schools.

The meeting was one of a series that has been organized by Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius and the state Working Group on School Funding.

Cassellius kicked off the meeting by explaining her and Gov. Mark Dayton have been working on a seven-point plan that will focus on how to better fund Minnesota schools.

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“We wanted to find better systems that were more efficient and focused on students and student achievement,” she said.

In order to achieve that goal, she and the governor formed the working group – comprised of top school finance experts, educators, legislators and parents – that is working to address the discrepancies in the school funding model by soliciting feedback from schools statewide, and then using that information to reform the system.

 

Challenges facing schools

Tom Melcher, director of school finance at the Minnesota Department of Education, went down a laundry list at the meeting of funding challenges facing Minnesota schools.

First, he said the state has seen a significant change in demographics and the amount of students in poverty over the last 12-14 years.

Over that time period, the amount of students living in poverty has increased from 26 to 37 percent.

He then noted that even though school districts receive money from the state for special education funding, the complete cost of providing the state-mandated program is not covered, leaving individual districts the responsibility to pay for the difference.

Melcher then explained the amount of money each school district receives from the state is not keeping up with the pace of inflation.

“If you adjust for inflation, the general education funding has actually fallen,” he said. And depending on the inflation measure, we’ve seen a drop from $6,130 (per student) down to $5,798, if you use the consumer price index. If you use an implicit price deflator designed specifically for state and local government services, that would suggest the cost has gone done to $5,132.”

Melcher said school districts have attempted to cope with the reduction in funding by going to the voters more often and asking for more money to fund their general education budgets through levies.

“Ten or 11 years ago, the average referendum in the state was $352 dollars per student,” he said. “Now it’s $1,035. The referendum amount has more than doubled, even when you adjust for inflation.”

Melcher capped off his presentation by noting the state is projecting a nearly $1 billion shortfall in school funding over the next biennium of 2014-2015.

“The state Legislature will have to come up with a way to balance that budget over the next two-year period,” he said.

 

If nothing changes

After Melcher finished his presentation, he opened the meeting for questions.

Someone asked, “What happens if nothing changes?”

North Branch Area Schools Superintendent Deb Henton stepped up the plate and addressed that query.

“As superintendent here, I can tell you it means continued cuts,” she said. “Since 2003, with the exception of one year where we took most of the deficit out of the fund balance, we’ll be over $14 million that we’ve cut in the last 10 years. As long as you have growth or stability in enrollment, you can get by, and that’s how North Branch got by for a lot of years. We’ve seen declining enrollment for so many different factors. That has made it very challenging for us. We will continue to see cuts.”

Henton went on to say that North Branch area taxpayers are “very savvy” and they’re unlikely to pass levy referenda year after year because, like the schools, their budgets are tight.

Pat Tepoorten, the district’s community relations coordinator, said the issue of school funding has become a “political football.”

“It’s to my eternal frustration that we cannot seem to find a way to depoliticize school funding,” he said. “It’s being used by people on both sides of the aisle. It has poisoned the water, and as long as that situation exists at the Capitol, it seems that we just go back and forth and one side doesn’t trust the other.”

He added, “It seems to me, if we’re going to find a way to solve the inequity in school funding, we have to find a way to depoliticize the issue. All students deserve the same opportunities in Minnesota … all students should receive that education.”

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