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March 23, 2018

3/1/2018 3:39:00 PM
County Board: school funding affects economy

School district superintendents were thrilled to find the Chisago County Board is in their corner when it comes to finding equity in state funding streams for schools.  Superintendents for Forest Lake, North Branch, Chisago Lakes districts and the Rush City High School Principal, and St Croix River Education District Director Jamie Nord,  were given time on last week’s County Board agenda to discuss the seemingly-unsolvable problems with school funding in Minnesota.

There are 58 districts including the districts in Chisago County, belonging to the organization Schools for Equity in Education )SEE) Its director Brad Lundell gave the county commissioners a brief primer on how funding works.

There have been legislative tweaks and minor funding adjustments over the decades;  but the SEE group wants to see a fundamental shift in “equalization” aid throughout the state.  Equalization helps with filling gaps,  between property rich districts that have large tax contributors like a regional power plant, manufacturing plant  or a shopping mall ...versus districts that have little commercial-industrial tax revenue.  

Lundell said equalization dedicated just to helping districts with debt service is appropriated now at $23 million by the legislature. This covers less than three percent of total debt service.  and this appropriation is down from over 11 percent coverage in 2004.

Commissioner Ben Montzka stated it is “despicable” that Chisago county’s districts do not receive their “fair share” when  it comes to funding per pupil unit.  

The four local districts are all ranked in the lowest part of basic funding distributed by the state.

This gap only aggravates other financial issues beyond state control-- like the unfunded federal special education mandates.
County Board Chair George McMahon commented that it also seems that most of the extra aid available to districts is based on improving poor student performance.  “Seems like if we turn out good students we get penalized...we are getting shortchanged here.”

Chisago Lakes Supt. Dean Jennissen told the county commissioners their support is appreciated, adding, ”I agree it is despicable.”

Montzka questioned how the disparity in what pupils get for state funding across the state is even legal?  The state Constitution requires “a general and uniform thorough and efficient” public education system.

County commissioners explained the funding discrepancy issue is manifesting itself locally as an economic concern.  The more money that local taxpayers are asked to contribute through local levies on property tax-- eats away at the ability to levy other city and county taxes to use towards job creation and economic development.  Plus, homebuyers are more attracted to good school districts in which to raise a family.

North Branch Superintendent Deb Henton explained there was an effort by districts to put together a coalition to bring a lawsuit and have a court rule on the question of school funding disparity-- but  districts are not ready to band together on this.

Lundell said, “There’s going to be a line around the block” (at the capitol) for the budget surplus spending debate this session. He told the Board to try to be present at any school funding events in St Paul, and make their concerns known to legislators.
Said Lundell, “Anything to get fairness into the system-- that’s all we want.”

A non-partisan report can be found on-line at www.house.leg.state.mn.us/hrd/pubs/mnschfin.pdf

Of about 330 districts in Minnesota, of total revenue rankings, including revenue for facilities and special ed-- Rush City ranks 301 in total state pupil aid.  Chisago Lakes comes in at 197th.  North Branch is at 235th place. Forest Lake ranks 175.
Even just the base average in per pupil unit monies is less in local districts.  Chisago is at $8,085, North Branch is at $7,986, Rush City is $7,989 and Forest Lake is $8,175.  The state average is $8,853.

According to SEE informational materials,  some districts you would expect to see at the top in funding are not...the Hendricks District is the number one in revenues at $16,723 per pupil unit revenues.  Minneapolis is number 12 at $14,065,  but then the next major metro school in descending revenues is the Richfield District at $13,356.  

Kelliher, Onamia, Browns Valley, Grygla districts’ revenues are ranked above districts like Minnetonka, Hopkins and Stillwater.   Edina is at #93 and Wayzata at #87,   get fewer revenues per pupil than do places like Blackduck and Osseo districts.


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