Area school districts are finding ways to stretch their budgets after years of state and federal cuts, even as the Minnesota legislature has increased educational funding by 2% this year.

Districts across the state have had to make major budget cuts this year, with some slicing faculty positions, extracurricular activities, field trips, and other areas. However, districts in the southern Minnesota area have been able to stretch budgets without major disruptions, thanks to creative solutions.

Belle Plaine

According to Ryan Laager, superintendent of the Belle Plaine Public School District, “It’s a lot more complicated” for area schools than just receiving a 2% increase in funding.

“From the perspective of Belle Plaine, we’re in really good shape financially right now,” Laager said, citing the “very good” working relationships with the district’s labor groups. “We’ve been very transparent about resources we have and have tried to come up with creative and unique ways to come up with fair and equitable settlements for everybody but stay in the budget we have so we didn’t have to make reductions.”

Laager said the district didn’t have to make cuts this year, though it didn’t replace some of the staff members who left for various reasons. He said as long as the district continues to hit projected student enrollment, it will remain on track budget-wise, especially because of the work that was done a few years ago to make sure the district was in a good position.

“We’ve done a lot to clean up our budget over the last few years to make sure it was sustainable,” he said, mentioning how the district increased some fees and shifted teacher positions about four years ago.

Laager added that the district is committed to maintaining areas such as extracurriculars, sports and fine arts, since they’re an “extension of the academic experience” for the students.

“They’re as valuable to many kids as any experiences we get in [the classroom],” he said.

Laager said for him, it’s important to compare the Belle Plaine district to other Minnesota districts with a similar size and demographic, so he and the Belle Plaine School Board can have a good idea about how stable their budget is and what is a good amount to spend on every category. His biggest question is whether a budget item has an “academic return on investment,” whether it’s a sport or a class.

“What is the return back in what we’re investing in?” he said. “Everybody wants everything. The problem is you can’t have everything. [So I ask], ‘Is it getting us return in terms of academic performance or class size?’ We put a lot of time and effort into looking at this and other budget areas to make sure we’re aligned.”

The district sets a budget every year, and Laager constantly monitors the district to ensure that they’re still on track.

“I look at our budget and all of those areas at least once a week, all the way throughout the year,” he said. “We don’t want huge fluctuation in opportunity for kids. We just don’t want to get into a situation where we’re consistently having to make budget reductions. No one wants to live in that world.”

Le Sueur-Henderson

According to Marlene Johnson, superintendent of the Le Sueur-Henderson Public School District, the state legislature’s efforts to fund education are encouraging, even if they don’t go as far as necessary.

“Just the fact that Governor Walz is looking at trying to assist education is very exciting to us,” Johnson said. “It’s nice to have him in place and know that it’s important to fund our schools. I wish [the funding] could have been a little higher, but it sure is a great place to start.”

Johnson called the 2% increase “helpful,” though she added that the increase doesn’t cover all of the district’s expenses, especially the cost of salary increases. In April, Johnson worked with the Le Sueur-Henderson School Board to set the 2019-2020 budget, working to weather a roughly $200,000 deficit between school revenue and school spending. In the end, Le Sueur-Henderson cut about $400,000 from its roughly $11.1 million budget for the upcoming school year.

To reduce expenses, Le Sueur-Henderson dissolved school positions such as the Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA) Technology Integrationist/Minnesota State University position, the MSU fellow position, the Technology Director and Networking positions, two custodian positions, and a special education position. Some of these positions were replaced by insourcing or combining two of them together. The district also removed a few classes, such as Spanish 4 and a physical education class for upperclassmen, as well as reduced its summer school programming.

Despite the overall budget cuts, the district was able to increase funding to maintain its buildings and grounds equipment, as well as adding some teachers. Johnson explained that the district was able to save some money as some teachers retired, since the teachers hired to replace them started at lower salaries.

“We didn’t go as deep as some districts have to do,” Johnson said. “We were able to do it very softly. We still have to look at ensuring that we are staying within our means of our budget. We’re trying to look at ways to increase our income and decrease our expenditures, and it’s a small school. Our revenues don’t always match the needs of our district.”

Johnson said another factor in the district’s budget considerations is student population. Le Sueur-Henderson experienced a slight drop this year, with numbers decreasing from around 1,000 to the 900s now. While the change isn’t significant, it still impacts how much funding the district receives from the state and affects the overall budget.

“That makes a difference, too,” she said. “We are just trying to adjust our environment to match our student population. It’s just always hard when your revenues and expenditures don’t even out, but we always do our best to ensure we provide a quality education to our kids.”

Special Education Concerns

An especially challenging area is special education. The state formula for special education will include aid to reduce the cross subsidy, which is the gap between what the state pays to subsidize special education and a district’s special education costs. The plan is to increase aid for the cross subsidy by 2.6% in 2020 and 6.43 % in 2021.

In addition to these increases, school districts will also benefit from the phasing out of a previously instituted cap on the amount of aid that a district can receive from the state regarding special education.

Laager said special education funding can be a challenge for the Belle Plaine district, but they’ve come up with “creative, unique” ways to still offer the necessary programs.

“There are adjustments and things that we can do in our budgets and programming to maintain and reduce spending,” he said. “[Special education] is not causing any budget problems for us.”

Laager referenced the district’s purchase of a new vehicle this year designated for special education use, along with purchasing a second vehicle for general education use. He said that the district spent almost $40,000 on general transportation last year, so it will basically make up the cost of the new vehicle within a year.

“Special education is an important part of what we do,” he said. “We’ve done some creative and unique things in special education to help keep the costs of the cap down.”

In the Le Sueur-Henderson district, Johnson said that they are committed to meeting special education needs, even if it can be challenging to make up the funding that the state and federal government doesn’t provide.

“I wish the funding would support the needs that we have, but even when they don’t, our students deserve being served in the capacity that they need to be served,” she said. “I don’t ever want people to think that special-needs children are a burden on the general education budget, because they’re students first and then special education second. Those kiddos deserve the best education that we can provide them.”

Increasing State Funding

While the education budget bill passed unanimously in the MN Senate and nearly unanimously in the House in late May, there was still a lot of compromise needed to gain support.

State Republicans initially pushed for a 0.5% increase in funding, while Democrats requested a 3% increase for 2020 and a 2% increase for 2021. Overall, the budget will spend $20.1 billion on education over the next two years, according to MinnPost. This is only about a tenth of the $80 million suggested by the original bill introduced this session, and only $2.5 million of that is new funding.

Charter schools will receive more special education aid from Minnesota thanks to the new budget, while still reducing the amount that charter schools or other districts can bill back students’ home districts to cover unfunded costs regarding special education. In the past, these home districts would fund 90% of the cost for special education students not attending their schools, while the new rate will be 85% in 2020 and 80% in 2021.

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