State Must Give Rural Children Equal Education

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

It’s a painful process for the District 777 Board of Education and the school administrative staff as they are forced to go through as they sit down to consider where they are going to cut hundreds of thousands of dollars in spending. What programs will be eliminated? Who are the teachers that will be put on unrequested leave? Should we have the kids in gym classes and sports bring their own towels to school? Should fees be raised or added to cover the costs of participating in activities?

This time around the school board is looking at making cuts to its general fund to address a projected deficit of $631,900 in the 2019-2020 school year. The deficit is due to declining enrollment in Benson schools, a lack of state funding, federal mandates without the financial help to pay for them, and inflation.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Legislature debates how much to fund the state’s schools.

Since 2003 state funding for rural schools has fallen $600 per student when inflation is counted into what they receive today. “Imagine if we had $600 more per pupil in our general fund and what we would be able to do with that,” Supt. Dennis Laumeyer told the board of education and public at its March 18 meeting.

The math is easy. Based on a projected 837.8 pupil units for the 2019-2020 school year that extra $600 would provide $502,680 in funding to save teaching positions and programs. It would reduce the projected deficit to a much manageable $130,000. Multiply the additional funding by the 16 years we’ve been falling behind, and our school district’s financial health would be on much more solid ground. We would likely have a reserve to help weather tough economic times.

At the same time, we are losing the financial battle with a lack of state funding metropolitan schools have a diversity of tax base to provide a better education to their children. The difference between what those metro schools have is an average of $685 per student more to work with than Benson Public Schools. If that funding were equalized, we would have an additional $573,893 for the coming school year, Laumeyer said.

As it has failed to provide adequate funding for our schools, the state Legislature has shifted an increasing burden of school finance to the local tax base. Nearly every school district in the state has implemented an operating levy to cover the gap between what the state pays for education and what a district needs to maintain its basic programs. The average operating levy paid by local taxpayers is now at about $1,000 per student.

District voters have approved an operating levy referendum that brings in about $1,255 per student a year while the state aid is projected at $6,438. Our school board could seek to levy up to $1,800 for its operating levy under state law, but that is a hard ask in today’s depressed agricultural economy. In District 777, nearly 80 percent of the tax base resides in farmland. Even with a $1,800 operating levy, the school couldn’t cover the projected deficit in the coming year.

“We can’t tax our way out, and we can’t increase the operating levy to produce enough revenue to get out of this,” School Board Chair Brian Samuelson said of the projected deficit at the March 18 meeting. “We couldn’t do a levy referendum large enough…nor would we want to.”

Our new Gov. Tim Walz was a high school teacher before he served 12 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. “Foundational to our past, present, and future is the quality of our people. And that begins with education,” Walz said in his inaugural address in January.

“Every student in Minnesota deserves the opportunity to learn in the best schools in the country with caring, qualified teachers. But as I travel around the state, I see how the quality of a student’s education is too often dependent on their race or zip code,” he said.
Though he recognizes the funding disparity between metropolitan and rural schools, and he acknowledges the state has not kept up with its funding obligations to rural schools, Walz says fixing the problem isn’t a one-year fix. However, he is proposing a 3 percent increase in the school funding formula in the first year of his proposed budget and a 2 percent increase the second year. It’s a start, but not nearly enough.

Even at those levels, school funding will not make much headway, if any, against inflation. This is a teacher union labor negotiations year. If a 2 percent increase is approved for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, it would take away much of the state increase in funding.

Walz also says he wants to make the need for operating levy referendums “either rare or extinct.” He would shift more of the responsibility for education funding to the state taking away the disproportionate burden operating levies place on farmland and rural communities. Walz has said that increases in school funding have to equal or exceed the rate of inflation.

Of course, a change in the school funding formula sources will likely mean a higher tax burden for those in the Twin Cities, owners of businesses in there might see higher taxes, and the wealthy may see a tax hike. They should support it.

For the Twin Cities, its businesses and its business owners, rural Minnesota in an incredibly cheap investment that pays dividends year after year, and has for decades.

Recent estimates on the cost of raising a child from birth to age 18 are around $250,000. If you send that child to college, you can add $60,000 to $100,000 to the cost.

Nearly all of our children we raise and send to college never come home. They become engineers, bankers, teachers, therapists, doctors, nurses, judges, bankers and fill hundreds of other types of jobs in businesses, industry, and government. Kids we train in trades classes end up in the Twin Cities as badly needed plumbers, carpenters, and electricians.

Some start their own businesses, hiring employees, and adding  vibrancy t of the metropolitan area. They buy homes and pay local real estate taxes. They send their children, our grandchildren, to their schools.

Finally, if the cuts proposed by the District 777 Board of Education bother you, don’t complain to it – get the attention of the governor and legislators. St. Paul is where the decisions are made that affect our children’s education funding.

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