Due North Education Plan leaves leaders with vague picture, but more funding could be on its way

Schools in Forest Lake have had their share of funding woes, the affects of which are most notably how the Forest Lake Area School District had to close Central Montessori Elementary School due to budgetary constraints after a failed levy referendum in 2017. After a referendum on a levy was approved by voters in 2018, the district regained some ground it had lost over the years, but administration said, even before the vote, the levy was simply meant to help narrow a gap that had grown too wide. That gap, school administrators said, was due to a lack of funding from state and federal sources, adding the state had failed to keep up with inflation for more than a decade. 

Last week, Gov. Tim Walz announced a new education initiative for schools, which he called the Due North Education Plan. Local education leaders say that while it doesn’t have enough specifics to know all the ways it could affect them, they all share an appreciation for the way it addresses funding shortages, including funding formulas which are considered outdated in terms of how those dollars are calculated.

Forest Lake Area School District Superintendent Steve Massey sat in on the School Finance Working Group, one of several committees that helped build the Governor’s plan, which has seven areas of focus surrounding offering a solid education and learning environment for all students across the state and funding that can adequately meet those areas of focus. 

Massey shared that a big part of the Due North Education Plan is funding. 

“First of all, it’s addressing funding needs related to the pandemic, and there is a significant need there,” Massey said. “We have had expenses that were not necessarily budgeted for by way of PPE, additional staffing needs, all of those different cost needs, to work our way through the pandemic. 

“In addition to that, there is a call for additional learning time and funding additional learning opportunities for kids that have experienced learning loss through this pandemic, and I think that is a really wise investment.” 

The Due North Education Plan includes an expanded summer school and change to summer school eligibility to help students make up for the learning loss during the pandemic and to ensure schools have the funding needed. 

The plan will also look to address funding needs overall, not just those due to the pandemic. 

“The state has not kept up with inflation when it comes to per-pupil funding for education,” Massey said. “The state and the federal government have not kept up with their obligation for funding special education. So those are two significant areas identified in this proposal to try to do a better job addressing the funding needs that school districts have.”

While the governor’s new plan will look at addressing funding, it will not specifically have an effect on the district’s ongoing issue with busing funding inequity, as the district loses $1 million per year in busing costs. However, Massey did mention that they are continuing to lobby the Legislature for support.

The plan will also address school safety and student mental health, which Massey also found to be important. 

Charter schools within Forest Lake will also be affected by the governor’s new education plan.

North Lakes Academy Executive Director Cam Stottler said that while the information that Walz has announced is vague, he is hopeful for the benefits that the plan could have for NLA and charter schools in general. 

“The details that have been shared are still relatively vague, though there is a weight placed upon equalization of funding for charter schools that has lagged behind even large public schools,” Stottler said. 

Executive Director of Lakes International Language Academy Shannon Peterson said she thinks the general move towards updating funding for schools is necessary, but is eager to hear more details about the plan.

“As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. We certainly support the spirit of the plan — a move toward adequate and equitable funding for schools throughout the state,” Peterson said. “This is simply an issue of fairness. A student’s ZIP code, archaic laws, or which public school families choose shouldn’t determine the adequate funding of their education.” 

Despite not knowing details about implementation, Peterson still believes that all students should have the right to a proper education.

“Basic educational needs are universal — student to student, school to school, community to community,” Peterson said. “Quality, experienced teachers, up-to-date curriculum, a safe and secure environment, and access to support services should be adequately funded and available to all. Unfortunately, the general education revenue schools receive has not kept pace with inflation for years, forcing schools to turn to their local communities to make up the difference by way of voter-approved operating levies.”

“I applaud the intent to recalibrate the funding formula, as it has become very burdensome to figure out and to use projections with budgeting,” Stottler said. “I also appreciate that the state recognizes how districts have had to look to local levies to supplement income that ideally should be coming from the state. Undoubtedly local levies will create a socio-economic gap when used in the manner they have been the last two decades.

“If the plan is able to be funded in the way it is originally presented, that will be a gain for all in education, but I also know there are a lot of issues that may roadblock or divert funding as well.” 

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