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Emergency school funding just a stop gap

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton is hitting the road this week to promote his proposal to provide one-time emergency funding to the state’s public school districts.
The governor is proposing spending $136 million of the state’s projected $329 million surplus to provide additional aid to school districts. The proposal would increase aid to school districts by a relatively modest 2 percent.
Dayton sent a letter to the state’s news media this week trying to get editorial backing of his proposal. According to his letter, at least 59 school districts across the state are facing serious budget deficits, which may result in the laying off of teachers and the cutting of programs.
This is nothing new for Minnesota school districts. It was not so very long ago when many districts were in statutory operating debt, hurt not only by declining enrollment, but by aid “shifts,” in which the state delayed making payments of promised aid to school districts while the state tried to address its own budget crisis.
We can applaud the governor’s desire to provide “emergency aid” to school districts. It is imperative that schools are adequately funded if we want our children to have exemplary educations.
However, “one-time” means one time. In essence, we may slap a bandage on the wound now, but we’ll end up having to deal with the infection at some point.
Our funding formula for school districts needs to change dramatically. Currently, it is based on enrollment. When the current funding basis was proposed in the early 1970s, our state had a booming population, even in the rural areas.
Now, families are having fewer children. Factor in that our rural population is gradually migrating toward the metro area, and rural Minnesota, in particular, is seeing a dramatic decline in its number of children.
In the rural area, that has meant the consolidations of school districts, with children traveling further and further to get their educations.
It’s time to change the funding formula. It’s not hard to figure out that it takes more money to educate more kids. However, there are certain basic operating costs school districts have regardless of the number of its students. A classroom that hosts 22 students costs the same to heat, light and operate as a classroom with 29 students. But a classroom with 22 students brings in far less revenue to a district than a class with 29 students.
It’s time the Legislature starts looking at a new formula for education that accounts for both fixed operating costs as well as student enrollment.
Education has changed dramatically in the last 20 years; our method of paying for it needs to change also.