Column: Watching Legislature’s approach to school funding

by Jeff McGonigal

As I finish my second year as associate superintendent for high schools in Anoka-Hennepin School District, I am pleased to report from direct observation that our elected officials listened, cared and took action that directly benefited our students and communities.

Jeff McGonigal
Jeff McGonigal

This was my first year in this role during a legislative session when school funding was under consideration, and it was fascinating to observe and participate in this crucial process from the point of view of an associate superintendent.

The Legislature sets funding levels for public education every other year. This process is extremely important because public schools depend heavily on state funding. About three-fourths of the revenue budget for staffing and operating Anoka-Hennepin schools is state money. Facing a slow economy, limited revenue and a large budget “shift” over the last few years that has forced districts to borrow, the Legislature and governor were in a tough spot. They wanted to pay down the borrowed money in the shift before adjusting funding for schools, simply to keep pace with inflation. In addition, there were many other compelling needs outside of education.

I visited the Capitol on two occasions, offering my support to the process. In doing so I was able to watch our board chairperson, Tom Heidemann, testify eloquently and knowledgeably about the needs of our children. Superintendent Dennis Carlson did the same. So, too, did our Chief Financial Officer Michelle Vargas. In fact, all three rearranged their schedules to testify or meet with legislators many times throughout the session. I was pleased when I saw that each was highly respected as expert about schools.

One meeting stood out for me. Legislators representing our school district, both Democrat and Republican, joined school officials for an update on our situation. Despite what I have heard and seen in the news about the parties not working together, that was clearly not the case in this meeting. Greetings were warm and cordial. Senators and representatives listened to information and offered suggestions. Various bills were suggested to address funding concerns without regard for who would get credit. In a matter of 20 minutes I realized this bipartisan group of legislators was united in its support for our schools and children.

Even with their tremendous support, the days leading up to the end of the session were looking bleak for Anoka-Hennepin. Heading into the final weekend of the session, we faced a $27 million shortfall over the next two years that would have resulted in hundreds of layoffs. However, our local legislators and other leaders came through in the last 48 hours of the session with small changes in a number of funding streams. These added up to approximately $15 million more than we had been slated to get even a few days earlier. It was clear that legislators listened to our needs and were concerned about ensuring the education of 38,000 students in Minnesota’s largest school district.

Instead of a huge budget shortfall, the deficit was reduced to about $12.5 million over two years. Our financial situation will still be tight, but it will be more manageable for our school board in their commitment to maintain class sizes.

I learned as a child, people will invest in something if they believe it is worthwhile. During my first legislative session up close in this role, I could see our local legislators believe Anoka-Hennepin Schools and our children are a good investment. They worked together on our behalf. I am grateful and impressed.

Jeff McGonigal is the associate superintendent of high schools for the Anoka-Hennepin School District.

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