State funding should help local schools

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 5/24/00.

Additional education funding approved in the recent Legislative session could bring $256,000 to the Paynesville Area School District.

The funding is part of a supplemental K-12 funding package with a total price tag of $172 million.

The money, which is aimed partly at rural school districts with declining enrollment, includes $27 million for special education; $31 million for training and experience revenue (to help pay for experienced teachers); $33 million in permanent funding for staff development; $12 million for vocational programs in secondary schools; $16 million for telecommunications assistance; and $26 million to help with deferred maintenance.

Howard Caldwell, Paynesville Area School District Superintendent, remained skeptical that the local coffers would see the full quarter of a million dollars in state aid. "That's the maximum allowable if we qualify," he explained. "It remains to be seen if we qualify."

Caldwell estimated that only half to two-thirds of the maximum allowable amounts typically reach the local schools. "Even that, however, would be helpful," he conceded.

For instance, he said the school already has state grant money that pays for the school's Internet connection on a monthly basis. "If we had to pay it ourselves, it would take a big chunk out of our budget," he said.

So, for now, the new state funding for telecommunications will probably be unclaimed locally, unless it continues until the grant money runs out. Caldwell wished that the new state funding could be used for hardware purchases, not just Internet capabilities.

Caldwell was pleased that special education funding was included to cover costs from unfunded state mandates. These costs currently must be paid from the school's general fund. He also was pleased that the vocational educational funding was included. Paynesville currently gets over $20,000 per year to help pay for the salaries of teachers in vocational education.

This additional state funding comes on the heels of a record $12.3 billion K-12 education appropriation approved during last year's legislative session. That biennial spending bill increased K-12 funding by $1 billion, a 14 percent increase, according to Rep. Alice Seagren (R-Bloomington), the House K-12 Finance Committee Chairwoman.

Rep. Bob Ness (R-Dassel), who represents the northern part of Meeker County, serves on the House K-12 Finance Committee. Ness, who served 12 years as a high school principal and 21 years as a superintendent, said the current funding "was perhaps the best balance (between rural and metro that) we've had in quite some time."

He also noted that the last two years have seen a record amount spent on education.

Rep. Al Juhnke (DFL-Willmar) thought more could have been done. "While this is certainly not all the resources we had hoped for, it is a significant boost for our local districts, and it is a considerable improvement on the original House education bill," said Juhnke in a press release. "The original House proposal provided only $30 million for K-12 education, whereas the compromise agreement provided $105 million per year in ongoing funding and another $67 million in one-time spending."

Juhnke said in a phone conversation that the extra education revenue was part of the Senate's third in the three-way division of the state's permanent surplus between the House, Senate, and governor. He said the original House proposal would have done little because it was so small.

Juhnke represents parts of seven school districts in Kandiyohi County, and he said all of them are running in the red. Even growing cities like Willmar, he said, are experiencing declining enrollment in their schools. Declining enrollment decreases per-pupil reimbursement from the state, but costs are not as easily reduced, leading to deficit spending.

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