October 8, 2007

The state of education

Rep. Dean Urdahl explains Dassel-Cokato’s funding situation

By Kristen Miller
Staff Writer

As complicated as school funding can be, there is a reason Dassel-Cokato is the eighth lowest state-funded school district in the state.

Rep. Dean Urdahl (R-Grove City) attributes this fact to the state’s funding formula used to determine how much money is given to a particular school district.

There are two main factors that determine how much a district receives in state funding.

The first factor in determining how much additional funding received by the state is the number of students who are classified at the poverty level. The state measures this by the number of students who are on the free and reduced lunch programs.

This number is a measure of the poverty level in a district. Many times, these are students who would need more academic support which ultimately requires more money spent in a district.

The second factor that greatly determines how much additional state aid a district receives is the number of students who need English as a second language. These students also need additional academic support.

The more students in need of these types of support, the more money a district will receive.

For example, the Red Lake Indian reservation in Red Lake Minnesota, receives the largest amount of state aid.

How does DC rate?

In the Dassel-Cokato School District, the average number of students eligible for free and reduced price lunches is 28 percent. Those with limited English proficiency averages 0 percent, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

Statewide, averages for free and reduced lunches are 31 percent and those limited English proficiency averages 8 percent.

Every district gets a base dollar amount which is set at $4,974, and factors such as these determines how much more money is added onto it, Urdahl explained.

DC receives approximately $7,300 per student in state funding which is about $2,000 less than the state average of $9,300, according to Urdahl.

DC is the eighth lowest school district in the state when it comes to the amount of state aid, according to Urdahl.

Urdahl explained it’s because DC has less “add ons” (free and reduced lunches and English as a second language) than other districts across the state, decreasing the amount of state funding.

School districts across the state are facing similar and even more critical problems forcing them to go to the taxpayers for an operating levy or risk cutting several millions of dollars from their budgets.

Anoka-Hennepin for example, will need to cut $42 million from its budget if the levies that are being proposing fail. This would include 500 teaching positions, school closings, and elimination of course offerings in the high schools and middle schools, reported the Anoka County Union.

Although there are several reasons districts choose to go to their taxpayers for additional funding, the main reason is that revenue cannot keep up with the cost and expenditures, according to Urdahl.

This year, there are 100 school districts out of the state’s 430 that asking for levies, according to Urdahl.

“Across the state, it’s been difficult,” he said.

Levies are difficult to pass because taxpayers don’t want to pay more taxes, Urdahl said.

Nearly half of the state’s budget goes to education (pre-kindergarten through 12) in which the state has committed an $800 million increase to the education budget for the next two years, according to Urdahl.

This number ranks high compared with other budget years, but since the federal government has not lived up to its special education funding, the state made an effort to compensate for this, Urdahl explained.

Therefore, $325 million of the $800 million went into special education funding and less money to the overall education formula.

“We don’t normally do that,” he said.

The legislature increased the amount given to special education because school districts were having to take money from their general fund to cover mandated costs of special education, he explained.

The money from the state for special education would then free up money to spend in other areas.

“That was the idea anyway,” he said.

Last year, Minnesota increased the budget given to schools by 2 percent in 2007, and 1 percent in 2008. However, much of the money was put into special education, not to increasing the original base dollar amount, he said.

Money given to the original formula (base) is less than past years, he said. The average for the past two budget cycles has been 4 to 6 percent. The current two-year cycle is at 3 percent, he said.

There are six school districts in Urdahl’s legislative district, and all of them are facing similar problems financially.

Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City is in statutory operating debt partially due to the fact they have lost a large number of students to open enrollments to other districts, according to Urdahl.

DC, on the other hand, has had a steady gain in open enrollments allowing more money to come into the district (state money follows the student), but faces problems elsewhere, he said.

Cost of energy has increased including the cost of transportation, for example.

Suburban schools receive more tax dollars due to higher taxes compared to rural schools. They also receive more taxes through commercial and industrial taxpayers, as well, he explained.

“These are all beneficial to the school district,” he said.

In DC, for example, the majority of the taxpayers are residential since there are so few businesses in the area, Urdahl explained.

This is why economic growth is important to rural districts, he said.

Although Minnesota schools are the best in the country, Urdahl said the state and school districts need to ensure educational success without over burdening taxpayers.

“That’s the challenge we face,” he said.

When asked if DC should pass an operating levy this fall, “To keep up, they probably should,” he replied.

He also said district taxpayers need to carefully evaluate the needs of the district and base their decisions on that.

A look ahead

Although this year is not a budget year, there may be some supplemental funding that could go toward education, depending on the budget forecast, he said.

“I would support additional funding for education,” he said.

Also, Urdahl is working on some policy ideas for the upcoming legislative session that would improve the quality of education. For example, requiring all teachers to have master’s degrees.

“We have to ensure we maintain high quality education in Minnesota,” Urdahl said.

During the last session, a tax bill was vetoed by Governor Tim Pawlenty which could give property tax relief to Minnesota taxpayers.

This session, the bill is expected to come up again, Urdahl said, and he is hopeful it will pass.

The legislative session runs from Feb. 12 through mid May.

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