Legislature's $485 million windfall for schools not reflected in new district budgets

  • Article by: KIM MCGUIRE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 29, 2013 - 10:15 PM

New budgets conservative even as $485 million headed to schools.

Art classes won’t be restored at Lakeville elementary schools next year. Some Eden Prairie schools will be down several clerks and teacher aides due to a $4.3 million shortfall. And in Stillwater, school administrators are contemplating a four-day week.

Most Minnesota school budgets finalized this month reflect financially conservative times even in the wake of a $485 million new cash windfall granted by legislators in what many have dubbed “the education session.”

While school advocates applaud that significant financial boost over the next two years, they say it will take much more to compensate for decades of flat funding and the Legislature’s longtime practice of balancing the state budget by withholding payments to schools.

In fact, many schools already have plans to go to the voters in the fall and ask for more money to help pay for basic operations.

“Districts have been running lean and they will continue to run lean,” said Brad Lundell, executive director of Schools for Equity in Education, a consortium of 62 poor school districts seeking changes to the way the state finances education by relying on property values. “Not a lot changes this year.”

Almost one-fourth of new money approved this session will fund all-day kindergarten throughout Minnesota. It’s a move that’s been on schools’ wish list for decades as studies show full-day kindergarten programming helps boost future school success and close achievement gaps.

But that money — along with almost $30 million in special education aid and new dollars generated by changes in the state tax bill that will benefit schools unable to pass a referendum — won’t flow into school coffers until fiscal year 2015.

Until then, some schools will have to dip into surplus funds to cover the bills this school year while many others have no immediate plans to restore cut programs or hire more teachers.

“The bottom line is — and it’s something we need to have a more open debate on — is that we don’t have an expenditure problem. We have a revenue problem,” said outgoing Brooklyn Center Superintendent Keith Lester. “That’s true of many schools in Minnesota.”

Seeking local support

The most immediate bump in funding that all schools will receive this year comes from the general education formula, which currently provides schools $5,224 per pupil. Schools will receive a 1.5 percent increase each year — $78 extra dollars this year, and $80 next year as a result of the most recent legislative changes. That’s the highest percentage increase in the general formula since the 2007-2008 school year when schools got an extra $100 from a 2.4 percent increase.

For most schools, those new funds are minimal. In Minneapolis Public Schools, for example, it reflects a $3 million increase to its almost $525 million operating budget, according to mid-June calculation by the state education department.

Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, said schools would need to receive at least a 1.7 increase in the general education funding just to keep up with inflation under the most conservative estimates.

“Clearly, most schools are just treading water when it comes to the basic formula that provides the most money” Croonquist said.

Consequently, many schools tapped surpluses to cover deficits this year.

That’s the case for Anoka Hennepin Public Schools, the state’s largest school district. This week, the school board approved a budget with a $7.5 million shortfall, prompting the district to tap its reserves to cover the deficit.

Just a few months ago, the district was projecting a $27 million shortfall over the next two years, but last minute legislative changes to funding formulas for low income students and integration aid helped reduce that amount, Superintendent Dennis Carlson said.

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