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Paynesville Press - March 30, 2005

Changes proposed in K-12 funding

By Melissa Andrie

The budget produced this legislative session will probably increase the basic per pupil education revenue for the first time in three years, according to Sen. Michelle Fischbach (R-Paynesville). However, no agreements have been made among Governor Tim Pawlenty, legislators, and education experts on how large the increase should be and whether the funding system needs to change.

Currently, schools receive basic revenue of $4,601 per pupil unit, which does not include local levies or state allowances for special education and other designated areas.

In this system, the number of pupils per grade is weighted, withkindergarteners counting as 0.557 pupil units; first through third graders as 1.115 pupil units; fourth through sixth graders as 1.06 pupil unites; and seventh through 12th graders as 1.3 pupil units.

The governor released a proposal that increases this basic revenue by 2.5 percent, from $4,601 to $4,716 per pupil unit, for fiscal year 2006, which covers the 2005-2006 school year. For the following year, he suggests $5,239 for the basic revenue, which is a larger increase per pupil unit, but that year the pupil weighting would change, with kindergarteners counting as 0.5 pupil units and all other students counting as 1.0 pupil unit.

If Paynesville schools have a kindergarten class of 80 students the next two years, which is the size of this year's class, and if the number of students otherwise stays the same (outside of the addition of new kindergarteners and the subtraction of graduating seniors), the governor's proposal would mean a less than one percent increase in basic funding for fiscal year 2006 (due to enrollment decline) and a nine percent decrease for fiscal year 2007 (due to enrollment decline and fewer pupil units due to the weighting).

Rep. Bud Heidgerken (R-Freeport), who serves on the Education Finance Committee and the Education Policy and Reform Committee in the House, sees the increased per-pupil funding as essential but believes that the governor's proposal does not add enough and that schools "shouldn't have to beg for money for education."

Sen. Dean Johnson (DFL-Willmar) is one author of a bill that, if passed, would increase the basic per-pupil funding by $250 for each of the next two fiscal years.

Schools need additional funding of $250 per student, which is more than double what the governor has proposed, according to Charles Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. With this amount of state funding, he said that at least 95 percent of school districts would be financially stable.

Changes in the funding system are also being debated, with local levies as one controversial topic. Pawlenty's proposal allows increased levies by school districts in fiscal year 2007, a proposal that Rep. Larry Hosch (DFL-St. Joseph) disagrees with. He believes that any property tax increase to fund schools should be a statewide tax distributed among districts, because, he said, local levies cause inequality in districts that are property poor and have lower tax capacity per student.

Whether the pupil units should be weighted is another focus, and Fischbach, a member of the Senate K-12 Education Budget Division, said that she can understand the opinions of those on both sides. Changing so that all students - from first grade through 12th grade - count as one pupil unit makes sense, she said, and creates a much simpler system, but she also noted that educating students of some ages costs more.

A possible solution that Fischbach sees is creating a base amount of funding to cover costs which must be spent regardless of the number of students and adding per pupil funding to that. She said that this is talked about often in committee but is a bigger change than will probably be made this session.

Heidgerken mentioned that eliminating the weighted system affects schools with declining enrollment dramatically, which makes him disagree with that part of the governor's proposal. The Paynesville Area School District is facing declining enrollment, with its largest classes in grades 8-12.

Heidegerken thinks that there is a different solution to the issue, which is to create a funding system based on the cost for each particular course that is offered.

Heidgerken would not want to see this implemented right away, but he has introduced a bill that would create a task force to study this type of system and hopes to raise interest so that plans can be put in place for this type of school funding.

Right now, education finance committees in both the House and Senate are hearing bills and considering them for inclusion in a final bill. Once the committee from each house has chosen what it believes to be the correct amount, system, and source for K-12 education funding, this will be worked into its respective budget bill.

A budget bill must be passed by each house before a bipartisan committee - with members from both houses - will revise them into one final bill, which will be sent to each boyd for another vote. After legislative approval, the bill will be sent to the governor for review and approvval.

(Editor's Note: Andrie is a 2004 graduate of Paynesville Area High School and a freshman at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. She is covering the 2005 legislative session for the Paynesville Press.)

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