Continuing to increase school funding at the Capitol

Bob Dettmer
Guest Columnist

When I read the article in last Thursday’s paper titled “District hopes for funding gap relief,” I was interested. This interest quickly turned to dismay as I read through the piece. I would like to address some concerns that were articulated by School Board members in the article.

As a former educator and high school wrestling coach myself, I have made a conscious effort to be in frequent contact with teachers from our area, the School Board and the Forest Lake School District’s administration regarding how we can help our district with funding shortfalls. I have held several meetings over the last three months to gather input leading up to this legislative session, which have been profitable and resulted in ideas for new legislation.

As the article’s writer states in the first sentence of the piece, the school funding formula is extremely complicated, but we are always working on how to improve funding for our schools, both at the district and state level. I truly appreciate the responsibilities that our School Board members and administrators have in running the district efficiently and effectively for our students.

On Tuesday, the February budget forecast was released. That forecast tells us the total funds we have to work with as we assemble the state’s next two-year budget. In the article last week, a School Board member accused me of not supporting additional funding for schools. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

I was proud to support a budget bill last session that fully funded our schools and included a 2 percent increase for 2016 and 2017, for a total of 4 percent. On top of that, without any changes, school funding levels are already scheduled to go up by an additional $700 million for the next two years. I expect there will be a similar push for additional increases in the funding formula this budget season as well, which I look forward to supporting.

Some have mentioned using the existing budget surplus for education. Unfortunately, using the surplus would be one-time funding, not a long-term solution. The other side of that coin is that long-term, statewide solutions take more time to address, since they need to be agreed upon by legislators from around the state.

I, and other legislators representing parts of Forest Lake School District, have already made efforts to address Forest Lake-specific funding concerns this session. In cooperation with representatives sent by the district, I am co-authoring a bill that fully funds the transportation funding shortfall that Forest Lake schools have been facing.

Because the Forest Lake district is so large and enrollment is down, fewer kids are on buses that cover the same long distances. State funding per pupil isn’t enough to pay for the distance that our district buses its students. I am a co-author on this bill and am chief author of a bill, HF1455, that also addresses the transportation shortfall for our district.

As I mentioned before, the Legislature passed a 2 percent per pupil increase per year for the last two years, which means an additional $525 million invested in our schools in 2016 and 2017. We have also taken measures to address metro-rural disparities in funding and allocated $95 million to prioritize early learners with funding for pre-K scholarships and school readiness programs.
Policy efforts in the last biennium included teacher licensure reform to address teacher shortages in Greater Minnesota and reducing the number of mandated tests to enable educators to customize their curriculums to their students and not a test.

At one point in the article, a School Board member states, in part, “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.” Please, never stay silent regarding the needs of our children, regardless of the financial situation of our state. Education has been, and remains, a top priority for myself and the other legislators who represent Forest Lake School District. We are working to address the needs of our district, and we need all of the input we can get from our community and our elected School Board members. I look forward to our continued work together.

Bob Dettmer is the state representative for District 39A.