Real talk on school funding

Rob Rapheal
Guest Columnist

I’ve heard many people say that school funding is so complicated that it is almost impossible to understand. True, but most of the money that pays for our schools comes from the state budget in what’s called per-pupil funding. This means that for each student, a district is given a fixed dollar amount. The other funding sources, which can include federal money, local levies and compensatory (funding tied to specific needs), are important, but I want to talk about per pupil funding because it is the most important to districts like ours.

Every two years, the House, Senate and governor set the amount of the per-pupil funding, and over the last 15 years, the amount that the state has allocated to schools has not kept up with inflation. This means that school districts have been cutting the amount going into the classroom or relying on passing local levies to make up the difference. For part of that time, we were going through the Great Recession, and I understand the need for belt-tightening during difficult economic times. But here’s the important thing to remember: For a large part of that time, the state was running a deficit because, in 2001, the state government took over a big part of the local funding of schools and then decided to not raise revenue to cover the expense. People got tax cuts, but it put our schools into a financial crisis mode for years.

As such, here are some points that I would like people to be thinking about as the Legislature and governor are deciding how to fund schools for this two-year cycle.

—Forest Lake Schools need a 3 percent first-year and 3 percent second-year increase if we want to maintain our class sizes at current levels and maintain a reasonable fund balance.

—The state currently has a budget surplus of $1.65 billion. The reason for this excess is that tax revenue increases with inflation. Unfortunately, so do the costs (schools, roads, etc.) that those taxes are collected to pay for. If the Legislature funds schools at less than the rate of inflation, schools have to cut their budgets, and the Legislature pockets the inflationary portion for tax cuts.

—The House and Senate have proposed tax cuts of around $1.35 billion. This is the same mistake that was made in 2001, and it will tragically hurt schools for a decade.

—The House education funding bill has passed and has a 1.6 percent first-year and a 1.1 percent second-year per-pupil increase for Forest Lake Schools. Local legislators know that those numbers make it look like they don’t support their local schools, so watch out for tricks like adding the numbers together in the second year, talking about two-year increases or adding in changes in compensatory funding.

—Don’t be thrown off by “that’s a lot of money!” talk. Educating kids is one of the most important things that we do with our tax money. There are a lot of kids in this state, so it costs a lot of money. The Legislature is not giving a gift; they are returning money to local schools that have been raised from taxpayers in their districts.

—Roll your eyes when you hear “We just keep giving more and more to schools ….” We also keep giving more and more for a gallon of milk. Inflation is real. Armchair school finance analysts can deny it exists, but they are not signing the layoff notices.

—Meager increases in per-pupil funding disproportionately hurt school districts like Forest Lake. When increases do not beat inflation, districts often raise the difference using local levies. Levies cost homeowners much less in districts unlike Forest Lake that have large industrial property bases. When the state pays less, we pay more.

—Legislators like to talk about “if we could only change the funding formula ….” I agree that the formula, the set of rules for how money is allocated to districts, could be changed to help Forest Lake. I would say, then, “Do it.” But don’t use it as an excuse to shortchange schools to pay for a tax cut.

Here’s the bottom line for school funding. We’ve spent years cutting our education funding, which means larger class sizes, higher fees, and less attention to specialized learning needs. It hurts kids. When the state was running yearly deficits, even if it was because of poor planning, it was tougher to make a case for increased funding. That is not our situation today. The state budget is healthy, and revenues reflect a growing economy. Shorting schools to pay for tax cuts hurts our district today and for years into the future, and people need to let their legislators know it.

Rob Rapheal is the president of the Forest Lake Area School Board.