The Star Tribune’s call upon voters to demand that schools demonstrate a need for funding and that reasonable steps are taken to keep spending in line could be read to mean that Minnesota’s schools are not already doing so (“A better way to help Minnesota schools,” May 3). Nothing could be further from reality.
Every day, Minnesota’s school districts share with the public the opportunities and the challenges facing their students and their schools. From school board meetings to community events — from testimony before legislative committees to reports and communications to local residents, families and students — Minnesota’s school districts provide substantial information on district resources, expenses, programming and needs. Each and every school district’s budget and other financial information are matters of public record and are discussed publicly by each and every school board each and every month.
Every Minnesotan knows well that our schools are not sufficiently funded from state coffers and that the state and federal governments have handed down mandates upon schools without including the funds necessary to run the programs. Every Minnesotan knows that — unlike cities and counties — our schools cannot raise local property taxes to cover the funding gap without first going before the voters, making the case and passing a local referendum.
The Star Tribune is correct that many Minnesota schools have significant responsibilities regarding special education and English learner programs. Indeed, the budget balancing that all of our school boards wrestle with each year often centers upon providing the teachers and programs that these students deeply need. Hence the urgency for developing a legislative work group to develop a plan of action to fund the special education cross-subsidy, which was $621 million in 2017 and is expected to rise to $816 million by 2021. The cross-subsidy is a financial hole created when state and federal funds for special education programs fail to pay anywhere near the full cost for the programs.
But these are not the only costs that school districts across Minnesota are struggling to pay. School safety, cybersecurity, transportation, heating and cooling, class materials and technology, insurance, and other items are often rising faster than the rate of inflation or the 2 percent increase in state funding that schools might receive. This is why school districts are concerned when the Legislature enacts mandatory policies — such as the four being proposed this year — without the funds to implement them.
Declining enrollment — a key cost driver for far too many Minnesota schools — is more complex than the Star Tribune suggests. Let’s take a K-12 school district (13 grade levels) with 1,300 students. If the district’s enrollment goes down 5 percent, that means 65 fewer students — or five students per grade level. It’s likely that the same number of teachers will be needed. The same number of buses will be running. The utility bills do not go down when 5 percent of the student body is gone. Of course, reducing costs is important. Minnesota’s school boards facing declining enrollment tackle this problem every year. But it’s overly simplistic to say districts need to be “nimble” and “adapt more quickly.”
We agree with the Star Tribune that teachers should be paid fairly. School districts face a range of challenges in recruiting, hiring, mentoring and retaining teachers who best serve their students’ needs and dreams. For some schools, it can be difficult to attract individuals to apply for open positions. In some specialized areas — including special education and the sciences — Minnesota schools looking to hire are often competing because the supply of qualified teachers does not meet the need. Minnesota’s schools compete with the private sector, which also seeks to hire the best and the brightest. In short, fair pay comes at a cost.
Minnesotans agree that our students deserve the best education we can offer. School boards work with administrators, teachers, staff and their communities to achieve this goal within the resources available. Gov. Mark Dayton’s emergency aid recognizes that more resources are needed. We applaud his approach and look forward to working alongside all who are committed to educating Minnesota’s students.
Kirk Schneidawind is executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association.