The school funding formula in Minnesota is determined by a highly complicated mathematical equation. To truly understand all of the nuances, one has to, for all intents and purposes, live and breathe the data on a daily basis. Less complicated for members of the Forest Lake Area School Board, however, is their view that per pupil funding is not adequate, forcing schools and ultimately students to suffer the consequences.
“By definition, the formula is fair as it works out equally no matter where a student goes to school,” Forest Lake School Board Member Luke Odegaard said. “However, it is not adequate, as the Legislature stopped adjusting for inflation around 1991. Since then, the gap has and continues only to get wider.”
The basic general education formula establishes the minimum level of funding for school districts. Multiplying the formula allowance by adjusted pupil units determines the basic general education aid.
To determine adjusted pupil units, each student is weighted by grade level. Voluntary prekindergarten students equal 0.6 pupil units, one kindergarten pupil equals one pupil unit for full day attendance and .55 for half day attendance, one elementary pupil in grades 1-6 equals one pupil unit and one pupil in grades 7-12 equals 1.2 pupil units.
The basic formula allowance is set each year in legislation. The last two years have seen a 2 percent per pupil funding increase in each year. For 2016-17, the dollar amount is $6,067, up from $5,225 in 2012-13 and $4,783 in 2005-06. School districts and charter schools will receive a total $5.6 billion in basic formula allowance revenue in 2017.
“The gap between what we will receive and what we would have received had numbers been adjusted for inflation is $2,188,” Forest Lake Superintendent Linda Madsen said. “The fact of the matter is that it has been such a number of years since the formula has kept up with inflation, even if they tried to adjust for it now, with no catch up for all the previous years, it won’t help much.”
On Dec. 1, 2016, the school board directed administration to draft budget cuts in the amount of $2.5 million. The first of those cuts were announced Feb. 2 and include an assistant principal position, one of two teaching and learning coordinators, multiple Alternative Delivery of Specialized Instructional Services grant positions, two full time equivalent positions for reading recovery teachers, and multiple secondary building department chairs.
“I will say that there is a 100 percent correlation between lack of state funding and our need to make cuts,” Odegaard said. “The increases have not kept up with inflation, yet our costs do not decrease. To give one example, the cost of healthcare has grown tremendously and we have to provide that to our staff. Simply put, when you don’t have proper increases in funding, you have to offset your cost increase with cuts elsewhere.”
To make up for the gap in funding, many school districts attempt to impose a levy on the taxpayers in their district.
“The basic problem is that the legislators have not been allowing enough funding,” Forest Lake School Board President Rob Rapheal said. “Expenses go up each year, and legislators don’t follow that trend when it comes to school funding, and then we fall behind. Couple that with the fact that Forest Lake has seen a recent decrease in enrollment numbers, and we’re in real trouble.”
Rapheal said much of his frustration comes from the fact that even when the state is doing well, schools suffer.
“When the state suffers financially and there isn’t a lot of money to go around, you kind of have to just bite your tongue and expect not to get much, but when the state is doing well, it is hard to see money not getting passed down to schools,” he said. “State revenues have been increasing, and we are getting shorted. During the last budget cycle, there was a $600 million surplus put into reserves for future spending. Why our legislators won’t give at least some of that money to schools is beyond me.”
Rapheal expects that the $600 million will be used to fund tax cuts, but said that when schools levy taxpayers to cover gaps left by not enough state funding, some of those tax cuts are rendered null and void.
“I saw (Rep. Bob) Dettmer the other day at a meeting and I asked him point blank what percent increase for school funding he would support,” Rapheal said. “He refused to give a solid answer.”
Dettmer did not return calls seeking comment on this story.
School Board Member Gail Theisen echoes Rapheal’s sentiment.
“You go down to the Capitol and you explain to these legislators that the funding just isn’t working, and they don’t want to touch it,” she said. “They throw up their hands and say that this isn’t equitable and that’s that. The saddest part is that ultimately it’s the kids who suffer most.”
Odegaard offered up a different approach to possibly reaching legislators and convincing them to consider change.
“Legislators respond more to people that are not in the system,” he said. “If there was some sort of grassroots effort started and they heard from 100 parents or community members voicing their concern, that might have a pretty good impact. It is important for taxpayers to stay involved and informed.”
Rapheal challenged legislators to take a deeper look inside of individual school buildings.
“Anyone can go into any of our buildings and instantly see that we are not overspending,” he said. “To make us fight so hard for these levies because of this insufficient funding increase is unfair to us and our taxpayers.”