Find way to fix broken school state aid formula

Don Heinzman
ECM Editorial Writer

A survey of area school superintendents revealed that all educational opportunities for each Minnesota student are not equal.

Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at Macalester College and an education columnist for ECM Publishers and Sun Newspapers, contacted superintendents to see what their priorities were for this new legislative session.

While top school officials don’t hold out much hope for changes this session, they agree the school aid formula is broken.

The biggest complaint is that while the basic state aid per pupil is the same for each student, the formula and the state laws enable some districts to provide more aid per student. The range of revenue per student in Minnesota can be anywhere  from $7,000 to $11,000.

For example, those districts that can pass levy referendums where the tax base is substantial, have more money than districts like North Branch that cannot pass such a levy referendum.

So the formula for state aid allots North Branch students less money than students receive in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Superintendent Vern Koepp of Rush City says that: “The inequality of the current funding formula has created an educational system in which some schools struggle to provide basic educational opportunities for students while other schools provide extras.”

In New York Mills where a special technology levy was passed, IPad technology is being introduced. Many other students don’t have that opportunity.

As Nathan points out: “Nations around the world with the highest average achievement don’t make funding dependent on which community a youngster lives in.”

Another major problem for school districts is the legislature held back over $2 billion in state aid, 40 percent, to be paid this year. This means many districts borrowed money and paid the interest costs in order to operate until the state pays them the held-up money.

Supt. Bruce Novak of Cambridge-Isanti notes: “It is very difficult for school districts to operate on 60 percent of the revenues during the current fiscal year without borrowing money to meet the everyday operational expenses.”

The legislature this year at least should fix the law so that charter schools have the same access to borrowing money for the holdback as the regular schools have. Lisa Hendricks, director of Partnership Academy in Richfield, said: “Our school will have to spend nearly $30,000 in fees to cover the holdback.”

(Legislators did provide $50 more per pupil to pay for the borrowing costs, but that’s not enough for some districts.)

Legislators at least should pay more for special education, because school districts are taking millions out of their general funds to subsidize the cost of this mandated education.

Legislators complain that not even they can understand the complex formula to aid students. They don’t have the will to tackle a formula which gives more money to districts losing students and poverty aid to urban schools.

Meanwhile, students in schools like North Branch attend school for four days each week and hope for better days. Their Superintendent, Deb Hinton, says the formula has created winners and losers in public education.

“As a state we need to make sure all students receive the same opportunity to grow and succeed,” she said.