Opinion editor's note: Star Tribune Opinion publishes a mix of national and local commentaries online and in print each day. To contribute, click here.
School districts across Minnesota are drowning in deficits driven by "cross subsidies" — the cost of unfunded state and federal mandates. Within the next 10 to 12 weeks, many will begin announcing staff and program cuts for the 2023-24 school year.
Sometimes a local example helps people understand the scope of the problem. My district, Farmington Area Public Schools (ISD 192) currently projects a $5.7 million deficit for 2023-24. Our cross-subsidy payments are $8 million — again, for obligations imposed but not paid for in St. Paul and Washington, D.C.
Nearly every dollar of local property taxes goes to covering these costs instead of to lowering class sizes or enhancing learning programs as intended. We have a deficit that shouldn't even exist if special education were adequately funded in the first place.
Despite months of lip service to "fully funding education," Gov. Tim Walz's budget proposal calls for the state to pick up just 50% of the cost of special education, the largest driver of cross subsidies. This is like throwing a bag of groceries at someone drowning in the sea.
In the House, leaders of the Education Finance and Policy Committee seem to have better things to do than address an urgent need that threatens a critical constituency — teachers and schools. HF 18 was submitted on Jan. 4 by Rep. Dan Wolgamott, DFL-St. Cloud, and would direct about $850 million of the state's surplus to close the "special education cross subsidy" for every district in Minnesota.
While HF 18 has 35 co-authors, it has yet to receive a reading or hearing, much less a vote.
It's not as if the bill is controversial. Indeed, fully covering special education costs has bipartisan support. It merely continues where an agreement was inexplicably abandoned by legislative leaders in May 2022.
Clearly, the House is capable of fast-tracking legislation. Over the past two weeks, the same House leaders have spared no time rushing through polarizing, partisan measures with no urgency attached to them.
But this — the single most impactful and time-sensitive financial and policy priority facing Minnesota schools? Apparently, that can wait.
Passing a finance bill nearly everyone agrees on can't and shouldn't have to wait for politics as usual games at the end of the session in May. Holding up HF 18 (or its Senate companion text SF 28, which has received far more attention in that chamber) for inclusion in an omnibus littered with other wish list items would be unconscionable.
This isn't just my priority. This is the top priority issue for the Minnesota School Boards Association and the Association of Metropolitan School Districts.
Gov. Walz has suggested Minnesota should be the "best place for children." We won't get there without political leaders who prioritize the needs of children.
We had plenty of talk during the election season. It's time for House leaders and the governor to step up and give special education funding the attention it deserves.
Kyle Christensen is school board chair for the Farmington Area Public Schools.