Others’ opinion: There’s a better way to target one-time school aid

Published 7:07 am Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

At least 59 of Minnesota’s 335 school districts are reporting significant budget deficits for the coming school year — shortfalls that could result in layoffs, larger class sizes and program cuts. In response, Gov. Mark Dayton is proposing nearly $138 million in one-time aid.

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Dayton would tap the state’s projected $327 million budget surplus. He argues that helping schools is more important than passing tax cuts, as Republican lawmakers have proposed. The governor’s new school plan would increase the per-pupil funding formula by 2 percent for all Minnesota public schools — meaning that even those districts that have successfully balanced their budgets would receive the emergency aid.

We suggest a more targeted approach that would send aid to those districts with large special education and English language learning (ELL) programs. Should the governor and Legislature approve any additional funds for schools, it should be sent to those with the highest costs in those areas.

The governor already had included a nearly $19 million increase in special education funding in his proposed budget. But larger urban districts in particular are struggling to keep up with rising special education costs. Even state Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, who blames school districts for not keeping their budgets balanced, acknowledges that the federal government hasn’t delivered on its promises to help fund those rising costs.

The longer-term challenge in school budgeting, though, involves breaking the cycle of deficits. During the nearly eight years of Dayton’s administration, the state has increased aid to schools every biennium. Despite that help — which school officials often argue has failed to keep up with inflation — some districts continue to report deficits.

It’s not surprising that taxpayers are skeptical, and school officials should keep that in mind. To the extent that declining enrollment contributes to budget problems, districts should adapt more quickly. Fewer students means fewer per-pupil state dollars. Districts need to be more nimble about adapting to that reality. A district of 10,000 students cannot continue to operate financially as if it still has 12,000 children in its classrooms.

Though teachers should be paid fairly, built-in contract increases such as steps-and-lanes — a provision that automatically awards pay increases based on degrees attained and years of experience — need to be reconsidered. Those are pay increases that occur in addition to any negotiated salary and benefit hikes every two years.

Some of the Minnesota districts with the most serious budget woes have decided on or are considering 2018 ballot initiatives seeking additional funding. Voters should demand that they demonstrate the need for more money and show that they have taken responsible steps to keep their spending in line.