Your zip code should not determine your educational opportunities.
That’s been the message carried among education advocates and in political circles. But when it comes to federal COVID-19 relief funding for education, ZIP code 55387 – that’s Waconia – is not getting the same opportunities as other school districts to make it through the pandemic, according to School District 110 officials.
Waconia Public Schools leaders identified inequities in the latest round of federal funding, and the local school district has taken the lead on education and awareness of the issue. Superintendent Pat Devine recently sent a letter to Minnesota lawmakers (state and federal) seeking clarification and resolution on the issue. The letter also went to the White House.
Devine also been raising the issue among other Minnesota school superintendents, many in the same situation.
ISD 110 has an enrollment of 4,143 students and has been allocated $402,903 in federal COVID relief dollars for this school year, a funding rate of $97 per student, according to district figures. That compares to average funding of $772 per student among all Minnesota school districts, putting Waconia in the bottom five, along with varied districts like Minnetonka and Esko, to name a couple. The highest is Pine Point School District at $4,825 per student.
The federal dollars are intended to help with expenses like safety supplies for virus protection for students and staff, building safety equipment such as air filter systems, technology support for new learning models like distance learning, academic support for students to help them through the changing and challenging school year, plus potential academic recovery programs if there are learning gaps.
“It is hard for us to understand why it would cost less for our school district to pay for these expenses than it would for other school districts,” Devine said.
The local school district is particularly sensitive to funding issues, Devine explained, noting that shortfalls in state and federal funding and changes in special education funding formulas helped push the district into an operating deficit two years ago.
The district had to make some hard choices and budget cuts since then, and reached out to voters for more funding last fall. And now it has had to reduce some support staff due to the latest inequity in funding, Devine said. The district may also have to make some difficult decisions in future expenditures.
“Other schools will be able to continue to provide additional academic support, purchase needed personal protective equipment and offer academic recovery programs and summer school with their funding…..we will not,” Devine wrote to lawmakers.
Or, if the district does offer summer school, it might have to be through some fee-based instruction. That has yet to be determined.
In the meantime, the issue has gained attention of other school superintendents and an organization called Schools for Equity in Education. And as of last week, Devine had heard back from Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith acknowledging the issue.
Funding formulas are complex, and Devine said the district understands and supports additional finances for schools with special needs, such as those with a higher number of students from low-income families. But the latest process was never meant to be the sole funding mechanism for schools, he says, adding better to find a way to have a base COVID relief dollar amount for all students and provide the extra funding for schools and communities that need more support.
While the Waconia school district has been thankful for the additional financial support through COVID relief funding, Devine said, “We are asking lawmakers to reconsider the pandemic funding process to ensure school districts are given equitable funding to support their students.”