Legislative tweaks add up to big relief for districts like North Branch

/ 20 June 2013 / eunice

Beth Hawkins, MinnPost, June 20, 2013 – Six months ago, North Branch Area Public Schools Superintendent Deb Henton was trying to figure out how to make up a projected budget shortfall for the 2013-2014 school year of $1.6 million and a stunning $2.2 million the year after that.

No mean feat for any administrator, but considering that after years of slashing and scrimping the district had been forced to go to a four-day school week, it was going to be a miracle if Henton kept the lights on.

Today, she’s doing a happy dance, contemplating what North Branch might do with new state revenue set to begin flowing in a few weeks. A five-day week might be back on the table, as might a more traditional array of sports, enrichment activities and smaller class sizes.

“I’m just so excited,” Henton said yesterday, out of breath from rattling off her wish list. There are details to be worked out, but for once, no matter what they are the news is going to be good.

North Branch is one of about two dozen school districts where a handful of relatively small policy changes made by the Legislature during the recently concluded session are going to add up to big relief.

For starters, according to a detailed article in the East Central Minnesota Post Review, a 1.5 increase in general education revenue in each year of the biennium will translate to about $274,000 for North Branch right away this fall.

Tweaks to how the state “weights,” or counts, pupils, a small uptick in special-education reimbursement and compensatory aid — money that offsets the cost of educating low-income students — will bring the new revenue to more than $1 million.

All-day kindergarten funded

And those aren’t the big changes. North Branch had already decided to move to universal, free all-day kindergarten, but lawmakers’ decision to fund it for every child in the state means Henton can spend that money plugging other holes.

And finally, thanks to a creative combination of changes in the way the state offsets the cost to districts of operating levies, North Branch could see an additional $1.5 million in the second year of the biennium.

Much of the public-education community had hoped that the DFL-controlled Legislature this year would return to a uniform, statewide general education levy, one of the basic planks of the long-lamented Minnesota Miracle. In the decade since its demise, districts increasingly have been forced to rely on local levies.

Inequities had hurt districts

With less commercial property to tax and lower home values, less prosperous communities have suffered. And some, like North Branch, were unable to persuade  residents to approve any referenda at all.

Explaining that Minnesotans were in need of general property-tax relief, Gov. Mark Dayton did not include a return to a gen-ed levy in his budget request. A number of legislators introduced versions of the proposal nonetheless, and in the end a combination of bills benefiting the most disadvantaged districts passed.

The measures enjoyed strong support from advocates for working poor families, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The groups made sure lawmakers were exposed to a steady stream of students and parents — including 15-year-old levy authority Siglind Dial — who spelled out exactly what the inequities meant to them.

Perhaps a new normal

The upshot: The North Branch school board may decide to levy up to $300 per pupil without asking voters. The state would pay 55 percent of the levy, leaving local property owners with smaller bills. This option is available to all of the few Minnesota districts that have no operating levy or one that is less than $300 per student.

On top of this, because its location near the metro area makes it a pricey place to compete, North Branch can levy up to $212 per student in “location equity index” dollars. Again, the board doesn’t need voter approval. The state’s share of the aid is less than a quarter of the amount.

While she was contemplating the good news, Henton hauled out her old North Branch letter jacket and looked at the decorations on it. She has fond memories of all of those activities, she said. And she’d like today’s students to have the same opportunities.

In sum, it’s far from the start of a new era of plenty, but it might at least mean a new normal.