Integration funds on uncertain ground

/ 18 April 2012 / jennifer

Trey Mewes, Austin Daily Herald, April 18, 2012 –

The future of integration funding for public schools could be shaky.

After an inconclusive House Education Reform Committee hearing Monday, the recommendations made by the Minnesota Department of Education’s Integration Revenue Replacement Task Force may go unheeded before the Integration Revenue Program expires at the end of the year.

“If things aren’t moving successfully, then we’ve got some issues,” said State Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin. Poppe said integration funding is one of a number of issues legislators can’t come to terms on, like the Minnesota Vikings stadium bill and the state’s bonding bill which includes funding for The Hormel Institute’s upcoming expansion.

The state gives about $108 million in integration aid every year to about 137 schools. Austin Public Schools receives $640,000 in aid, most of which goes to support its pioneer Success Coach program, which acts as a catch-all in welcoming new families to the district and bridging cultural gaps between families and school staff. Since its inception in 2007, the program has significantly impacted school climate and is credited for getting many more parents involved and increasing Austin’s graduation rate, according to district officials.

“We’ve seen a big change in how parents interact with the schools and the teachers,” said Kristi Beckman, integration coordinator.

The program came under fire last year during a protracted budget battle in the state Legislature. Minnesota Republicans took the program to task for not having an identifiable impact on the achievement gap between white and non-white students on state comprehensive testing. DFL members argued scrapping the program would have adverse effects on desegregation throughout the state.

The issue ultimately went to a bipartisan task force through MDE, which issued recommendations in a February report. Those recommendations keep desegregation efforts going while defining specific uses for integration funding and get rid of the financial disparities between school districts, as several receive far more funding than similar-sized districts.

Yet Monday’s legislative hearing was the first time legislators heard from the committee. State Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, was part of the task force and introduced a bill in March to implement its recommendations, but legislators did not signal whether they would act on integration hearing during this session.

If the aid program expires, that funding is expected to be rolled into a school district’s general fund aid the following year. If the program were to go away entirely, it could mean a difficult decision for Austin’s Success Coach program.

“It’s going to boil down to priorities,” said Mark Stotts, finance and operations director. “If that funding source goes away and we feel that success coaches are a priority in the district, then we’re going to have to figure out whether to fund it.”

Stotts said the Success Coach program would have to be considered with all other district budgetary concerns.

“It’ll be put in the mix with everything else,” Stotts said.

Legislators still have time to work on the issue in the fall if they don’t come to a decision this session.