Concerns about K-12 budget hint at debates to come

/ 29 January 2013 / eunice

Sarah Lemagie, Session Daily, January 29, 2013 – As lawmakers get their first look at Gov. Mark Dayton’s K-12 education budget proposal, they’re beginning to raise objections that are likely to shape the debates of coming weeks. House Education Policy Committee members got an overview of the governor’s plan from Education Department officials on Tuesday. In return, they had plenty of questions on topics ranging from teacher evaluation to proposed changes in the formulas used to distribute funding to school districts.

Rep. David Bly (DFL-Northfield) said he’s worried about the governor’s proposal to shift funding that’s currently allocated to districts based on the number of their students who spend extra time in after-school or summer programs. Instead, the money would be distributed based on how many poor students a school serves. State officials say the move would give districts more local control. But Bly argued that so-called extended time revenue was set aside precisely to protect the kinds of programs it funds, and that the change could end up hurting many at-risk students.

Similarly, Rep. Kathy Brynaert (DFL-Mankato) sounded a word of caution about a proposal to shift funds now earmarked for gifted and talented programs into the state’s basic education funding formula. Brynaert said she wants to make sure that the state keeps an eye on the learning needs of gifted children as well as those who struggle academically.

Rep. Bob Barrett (R-Lindstrom) raised a concern shared by many rural lawmakers: He asked why the governor’s budget doesn’t do more to address funding disparities between school districts that many say are unfair. “I represent North Branch,” he said. “We’re on a four-day school week, not because we want to be, but because we don’t have the money for a five-day week. That’s a pretty obvious representation that North Branch doesn’t have the money it needs to educate its kids.”

That district’s budget woes are closely tied to the fact that, unlike many school districts, North Branch has been unable to get voter approval for a local operating levy, said Tom Melcher, the Education Department’s school finance director. But that’s only part of the problem, Barrett said, adding that funding gaps persist even when you take local levies out of the equation.