Preparing the budget for the upcoming school year proved to be a far less grueling task this June for area school districts, which benefitted from an infusion of new revenue thanks to state legislators.
After years of slashing personnel and programs, many districts were able to restore programs, expand services and make key investments in staff and equipment for their schools.
As Hibbing Superintendent Bob Belluzzo observed, “Legislators were more kind to education than they’ve been the last couple of decades.”
That change began with the payback of money “borrowed” from districts to keep the state afloat during a budget crisis. The payment shifts forced a third of the state’s school districts to borrow money to avoid cash-flow shortages. The entire $2.8 billion has been repaid more swiftly than originally thought possible under the leadership of Gov. Mark Dayton and the DFL, which claimed control of both the Senate and House.
Lawmakers took several actions to funnel state money to schools. Some of those actions include an increase in the basic formula for pupil aid, the allocation of more than $9 million for Early Childhood and Family Education through basic funding and scholarships and funding for all-day, every day kindergarten.
While the additional money for schools is welcomed, it doesn’t mean that districts are flush with cash. Districts still face significant financial challenges and will need to manage their dollars wisely. Health insurance costs continue to spiral in most districts and finding a way to cap or limit the districts’ costs should be a top priority. In addition, schools are dependent on enrollment numbers. While there has been some good news on that front recently across the region, student numbers will continue to play a critical role in determining a district’s financial well-being.
Providing a first-class education is the best way to ensure that a school retains and attracts more students. That means the additional dollars the district receives should be targeted to classrooms and not just end up as fatter salaries for those working in education.
In the same vein, districts should continue efforts to streamline administrative services and make the most efficient use of their resources. The additional dollars provided by the state aren’t designed to let districts off the hook for their fiscal responsibilities. Districts also have an obligation to residents to avoid unnecessary increases in property taxes.
For many districts, rebuilding their reserves will be a priority, as well. St. Louis County School District, for instance, is still only halfway to what would be considered an adequate reserve fund.
We applaud state legislators, including our local leaders Sen. Tom Bakk, Sen. David Tomassoni, Rep. David Dill, Rep. Jason Metsa and Rep. Carly Melin, for restoring and improving funding for education. But getting the additional dollars for schools was just the start. How the schools utilize those funds will determine whether they help schools produce a better education that benefits our students.