Public school officials in Minnesota are breathing a bit easier now that a two-year funding plan has been approved by the Legislature. But they also know that more work remains to be done and local taxpayers may be called upon to avoid budget cuts.

In the final hours of the legislative session, leaders hammered out an agreement that would provide $384 million in new funding over the biennium. The increase amounts to 2% in each year of the two-year funding period. Gov. Tim Walz and House Democrats had worked for a heftier increase while Senate Republicans sought to tamp down the increase.

The compromise also addressed other key E-12 education funding issues: Special education, preschool and school safety.

The agreement calls for $90 million in new funding to address cross-subsidy needs for special education funding. The dollars will provide districts a small portion of the money they must use from the general fund to cover federal and state mandated special education instruction. It’s a start in addressing the cross-subsidy demand but only a small start. Across Minnesota the gap in annual funding for special education tops $800 million.

This compromise is a positive move and one long debated by state lawmakers. The real failure is at the federal level where funding has never come close to matching the federal mandates that are passed down to local school districts.

School safety measures will be addressed in the form of one-time safe schools grants. The plan calls for $30 million in the one-time grants, but the funding is available only after $33 million in other contingent appropriations and transfers are funded. The measure is a step in the right direction for districts that need help trying to make sure schools are as safe as possible.

The preschool funding agreement provides $47 million in a one-time appropriation that will maintain an estimated 4,000 preschool spots in public schools for the next two years. Studies continue to show the value of preschool programs. Sooner or later, state lawmakers must decide if the program is to receive permanent funding and how the state can best assist all preschool students.

We understand how difficult it was for state lawmakers to agree on a $48.3 billion state budget. Public school officials would have preferred a more favorable appropriation but in light of divided state government control, the final result is one that must be accepted. We’d call it a status quo settlement.

Lawmakers continue to face the dilemma of dealing with the ever-increasing costs of public education. The $384 million boost in per-pupil funding is in reality a mirage of new money when it is understood that lawmakers will dip into state reserves by nearly $500 million by 2023 to help balance spending needs. State reserves are once again healthy with $2.5 billion on hand, but if those reserves are repeatedly tapped and tax collections lag, something will have to be sacrificed in future budgets.

Schools in Minnesota that deal with the growing costs of paying staff, buying supplies and running a district face a difficult task. Some will be forced to simply make do. Others will be forced to make budget cuts when revenues do not match expenses. The inevitable result is districts will turn to property taxpayers for voter-approved operating levy increases to ensure the delivery of educational services required and desired by their community.

It’s not an easy task for local school officials who face continued pressure from open enrollment, charter schools and home-schooling options that pull away students and the per-pupil state funding. We accept that status quo funding will have to work, but tougher decisions for stable, long-term funding can’t be ignored.

— An opinion of the Adams Publishing – ECM Editorial Board. Reactions welcome, send to editorial.board@ecm-inc.com.

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