Courtney: We need to fully fund our schools

Superintendent of Forest Lake Area Schools Steve Massey discusses the state of school funding.

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by Zach Courtney

March is here, and many PK-12 school districts either are, or soon will be, on spring break. For families, this may mean a nice trip to Florida or getting ready for spring sports.

For teachers, administrators, school boards and superintendents the focus starts to shift to the budget for the next school year. School boards and superintendents are thinking about whether they have to make cuts, and if so, where they should make them. Teachers and administrators are thinking about whether they have a job for the next school year, if they’re getting a raise and how big that raise might be.

Certainly, every district in the state might not have to make cuts, but it seems many will. Willmar Public Schools, my alma mater, is bracing for a $2 million cut, which is 3–4% of the annual budget. Rochester Public Schools is looking to cut about $14 million from their annual budget. Many districts will be making decisions on if cuts are needed within the next four to six weeks, at which point the list of districts making cuts will be much clearer.

But hold on…our state has a $17.5 billion budget surplus. So, why are Minnesota’s school districts cutting their budgets? Shouldn’t this be a time of stability, if not expansion, for Minnesota’s public schools? That’s what I thought.

I reached out to the superintendent of Forest Lake Area Schools (FLAS), Steve Massey, to discuss why this might be.

First, Massey assured me his district was likely not in a position where it would need to make budget cuts ahead of next school year. “We are not in a position right now to have to make reductions,” he said.

One way districts can end up making cuts is if they lose students in their district. A large portion of state funding is per pupil, currently funded at $6,863 per pupil. So, districts that lose students might need to make cuts for that reason.
“It makes no sense, and it’s not wise, to keep spending the same amount of money as if you have the same number of kids,” Massey said.

However, per-pupil funding brings me to the first big reason districts are being forced to cut their budgets despite a massive state-level surplus. Our legislature has failed to keep school funding at pace with inflation. If state-level funding kept up with inflation since 2003, the $6,863 per-pupil figure would be 18.4% higher, at about $8,125 per pupil.

Take that difference – $1,262 – and multiply it by students in a district and that number adds up pretty quickly. Willmar Public Schools (WPS) has 4,279 students. So if per-pupil funding kept up with inflation since 2003, the state would be giving WPS $5.4 million more this school year in per-pupil funding.

“If the state is serious about fully funding public education, look no further than making increases to per-pupil funding. Bring it to the level where it would be had the state kept up with inflation,” Massey said.

Unfunded state-level requirements in special education are also hurting districts’ wallets. Though these special education requirements are good, the state should attach money to its special education requirements, too. This 2022 article from the Association of Metropolitan School Districts says districts would be getting $868 more per pupil if these special education mandates were fully funded.

FLAS is having a similar experience with special education.

“Our general fund contribution is $7.5 million per year to cover special education costs. If the state is serious about fully funding public education…make up that gap,” Massey said.

Lastly, Massey discussed the state’s formula for funding transportation. Instead of funding transportation by miles traveled, transportation is funded by how many kids are transported. It’s easy to see this isn’t an issue for some districts, but it is a huge problem for larger geographical districts like FLAS. The lack of transportation funding hurts FLAS, and Massey rightfully wants it fixed this legislative session.

“Ours is short by half a million dollars a year. Meaning I’ve got to hit the general fund to cover the difference,” Massey said. “That’s six, seven, eight teachers that I could hire and put into our classrooms. But because of the way the state covers transportation, I’ve got to pull those resources away from the classroom to cover transportation.”

I argue our state needs to go even further in our aspirations to fund public education.
I think a first-year teacher should make $60,000. We should universally fund preschool. We should increase in-class paraprofessional support. We should increase in-school mental health support. I’m probably (definitely) biased, being a student teacher myself, but we should also pay student teachers.

What Massey is asking for from the state is far from radical.

“I’m not asking for a handout. Just fund us the way we should be funded,” Massey said. “Keep up with inflation. Meet your obligation around special education. Fix the broken formula for transportation.”