Funding for schools in Minnesota is a complicated system that isn’t fair to everyone. Last year the governor convened a diverse group of school and civic leaders, legislators, parents and other citizens to make recommendations on simplifying the current system and making it more adequate, equitable and stable.
I certainly appreciate the efforts of the Education Finance Working Group. It was faced with a difficult task and it came out with a number of recommendations that were positive. Unfortunately, the overall result for Anoka-Hennepin School District does not correct the inequities that have plagued our district for many years.
Working with the governor’s budget proposal, which includes recommendations from the report, legislators are now considering a number of bills as they work toward setting school funding for the next two school years. Anoka-Hennepin administrators and school board members are working closely with the 20 legislators who represent our district. We are also reaching out to other key legislators – committee leaders and other legislators who represent low property wealth school districts.
We are hoping the result will be legislation that will adequately fund the educational programs we know our students need to succeed. We are also looking for fairness for our taxpayers. For years, taxpayers in districts with comparatively low property value have paid two or three times more to generate the same amount of dollars per student as those in wealthier areas. That is not fair to our taxpayers and gives other students programs and services ours do not have. It results in an opportunity gap for our students.
Last week several school board members went to the Capitol to speak with our legislative delegation. School Board Chairperson Tom Heidemann, Vice-Chairperson Marci Anderson, Director Jeff Simon and our newest board member, Director Bill Harvey. Heidemann testified in front of the Senate Tax Committee on a tax relief bill offered by our former school board member, Sen. John Hoffman.
I testified in the House Education Finance Committee on a bill that would provide greater equalization aid to the so-called “property poor” districts like Anoka-Hennepin. Equity funding for us is critical because of our low property tax wealth. We have little in our commercial industrial tax base so the impact of school funding falls mainly on homeowners.
If it makes it through the Legislature, this bill would provide needed tax relief for our homeowners. However, it would not provide additional dollars to cover our inflationary expenses over the next two years.
The same day I also testified on a bill that would tie the most significant part of our funding, which is known as the general education basic formula allowance, to the rate of inflation. This would be an incredible improvement to districts and families across the state. It would mean that school districts could count on – and plan on – having the revenue to cover the costs of educating students without cutting teachers and increasing class size or eliminating important programs.
Inflation for our district currently runs about 3 percent a year. In the last decade, the state has increased funding an average of 1.5 percent a year. The budget proposed by the governor would extend that underfunding at another two years, meaning a gap of about $18 million between our revenue and our expenses for the biennium.
Many school expenses are fixed – for example, the costs of transporting students to school and heating and lighting school buildings. They cannot be reduced. The area where we have greatest flexibility is with staffing. Timelines in state law require school districts to make staffing decisions in March, even though this is generally three months before we know how much money we will have.
That leaves us with two choices for next year, asking our 13 staff bargaining groups to accept another pay freeze – the second in the last four years – or cutting 200 to 250 teaching positions and again raising class size. We have no other choices.
If we knew we could count on an inflationary increase, we would be able to spare many of our teachers the pain of wondering if their jobs are on the line each year and to provide at least minimal salary increases so they can cope with their own inflationary costs.
Anoka-Hennepin is a district that works. We have graduated about 3,000 students each year for the last several years, which is more graduates from any single school district in Minnesota history. We have reduced the achievement gap between white students and students of color and our students have continued to perform above the state average on state tests, despite the fact that the percentage of our students who are living in poverty or homeless has increased dramatically in recent years.
As the state’s largest school district we need school funding formulas that work for us and we pledge to continue working toward that goal. Because our demographics (one-third students living in poverty, one-fourth students of color) represent the average Minnesota school district, we are similar to many other districts around the state. They are having the same struggles with funding that we do. Forty-one are in worse shape because their citizens have not approved their local levy referendums.
Funding for our school children should not be defined by the zip code where they live. We love and care for our children just as much as anyone else. It is time for our elected officials who represent all of the state of Minnesota to make sure all our school children are represented as well. We thank our 20 local legislators for all the help they are giving us to do just that.
Dennis Carlson is the superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin School District.