Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Education bill could hit rural school districts hard

Measure would cut sparsity and compensatory aid, which assist rural districts and those with many special needs students

Tom Klein
Posted 5/6/11

Minnesota lawmakers are debating a K-12 education bill that would increase the basic aid formula, but slashes funding in several other areas.

“The numbers will look like some of our schools will …

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Education bill could hit rural school districts hard

Measure would cut sparsity and compensatory aid, which assist rural districts and those with many special needs students

Posted

Minnesota lawmakers are debating a K-12 education bill that would increase the basic aid formula, but slashes funding in several other areas.

“The numbers will look like some of our schools will get a little more money per pupil,” said Ron Dicklich, executive director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools in a session update to members. “A closer look however will show that after you include the cuts in special education, compensatory aid and sparsity aid, most rural and higher need school districts will be in serious trouble in a short period of time. The redistribution of this money to suburban school districts could be as devastating as the property tax reform in 2001 that sent $1.6 billion to the 12 richest school districts in the state.”

Mindy Greiling, the senior DFLer on the Senate Education Committee, was blunt in her characterization of the proposals.

“It’s a very partisan bill helping areas Republicans represent and screwing the heck out of areas represented by Democrats,” the Roseville DFLer said.

Funding for schools

Under the House and Senate bills, there would be an annual boost of $50 per pupil in the statewide basic aid formula each year, with an extra boost for districts with enrollments of 1,000 students or less.

But both the House and Senate bills call for radical cuts in other funding, including placing a cap on the state’s contribution to special education that will cost school districts in Minnesota’s urban and regional centers an estimated $50 million.

Capping state funding for special education programs mandated by the federal government would force cash-strapped districts to redirect funds from the general student population to keep those programs going, according to Jim Grathwol, a lobbyist for Minneapolis Public Schools.

“This bill is clearly picking and choosing winners and losers,” he said.

In addition, the bills slash funding for the Minnesota Department of Education, eliminate funding for racial integration and reduce compensatory and sparsity aid. The St. Louis County School District is a major beneficiary of both sparsity and compensatory aid.

The proposals have drawn criticism from the state’s Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, who said she looked forward to negotiating a final education bill with the Republican-led Legislature, but the bills under consideration do not appear to be “a serious proposal.”

Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, shares Cassellius’ view, observing that negotiations over the education bill have been superficial at best. “They need to get a final bill to the governor so talks can really begin and they’re not doing that.”

Tomassoni said Republicans are pursuing a slash-and-burn policy rather than the balanced approach promoted by Dayton that calls for raising taxes as part of the solution to the state’s $5 billion budget deficit.

They’re “gutting” valuable programs like education because there are few reserves of cash left to address the deficit, he said. “All the low-hanging fruit was stripped by (former Gov. Tim) Pawlenty. Now we’re up on a ladder and can’t find any.”

Teacher proposals

The bills also target teachers, imposing a teacher pay freeze for two years and significantly altering teacher tenure rules.

Under the bills, teachers would be issued five-year contracts and renewal of those contracts would be tied to a new evaluation system, based in part on student achievement.

Tom Dooher, president of the state teachers’ union Education Minnesota, said a pay freeze could drive more teachers to other states instead of remaining in Minnesota.

“Other states already intensely recruit our college graduates,” said Dooher, who said Minnesota ranks 21st in the nation in average teacher salary, about $1,000 below the national average.

He added that like many other Minnesotans, teachers’ take-home pay has been falling for years and added that rising health insurance costs have further eroded their pay.

“The Department of Education reports that the average teacher salary in Minnesota rose $17 last year, hardly the $80 million that the Minnesota Association of School Administrators claims a freeze would save.”

Dave Fazio, president of Teachers Local 331 in ISD 2142, noted that the bill contains multiple curbs on teacher bargaining rights, including a strike ban, and called it a “Wisconsin-style assault on collective bargaining rights.”

Tomassoni agrees and said the bill’s provisions would hamstring teachers’ ability to negotiate a contract. “I’m especially concerned about the attacks on collective bargaining,” he said.

The issue of tenure, however, may be another matter. Although Gov. Mark Dayton hasn’t endorsed the proposals put forth by the House and Senate, he, Cassellius and Education Minnesota are at work on their own evaluation proposal.

Meanwhile, Dayton has said he won’t sign any budget bills until he and Republican legislative leaders come to an overall agreement on the level of state taxes and spending to erase a projected $5 billion state budget shortfall. Although Republicans want to avoid a state tax increase, Dayton wants to use an income tax hike on the state’s top earners to help cover the shortfall and bring more financial stability to the state.

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