District wins, loses at the state capitol

by Jim Boyle

Editor

The Elk River School District will take in at least $600,000 more in state revenue than it counted for the coming school year, but the district has no plans to celebrate the recently completed Legislative session.

That’s largely because there are a few expenses it will have to contend with that it also hadn’t planned on, according to Greg Hein, the district’s executive director of business services.

And one piece of legislation designed to help make the funding for districts like Elk River more equitable might not be beneficial as initially thought. It has lost its luster after differing bills on the same topic passed in the House and Senate and still need language issues to be worked out, with an outcome that might spoil chances for a equity windfall of $31 per student.

Superintendent Mark Bezek said he keeps hearing how wonderful this session was for education, but “I’m still waiting to see it,” he told the Star News this week.

Even lawmakers’ decision to add funding for all-day, every-day kindergarten on a voluntary basis hasn’t triggered high fives from members of the Elk River Area School Board, who decided to blaze a trail on the matter of all-day, every-day kindergarten by starting a full-scale model of its own this fall.

“We’re thankful and appreciative of the work the legislature has done, but we still continue to have issues,” said Hein, who will present budget numbers to the Elk River Area School Board at a work session on June 17 at the District Office.

Hein told the Star News the district will have to plunk down about $300,000 to install the necessary framework to handle the new mandated system of teacher evaluations. (There was at one point money in a bill calling for $22 per student to help cover these costs, but it was taken out.)

Another $1.5 million will have to be spent on staff development. The existing law required 2 percent of the basic formula revenue be set aside specifically for staff development, but it had been waived by previous legislation. That requirement is back in full force in 2013-14.

“So we’ll get $600,000 in revenue  more than we assumed, and we’ll have about $1.8 million in costs more than we assumed,” Hein said. “We’ve … got a real issue and dilemma. We were already planning to deficit spend to the tune of $2 million.”

Hein notes the district still has an option to waive the requirement if an agreement can be reached with the teachers union, but the budget has to be approved by the end of the month and there have not yet been any talks with the Elk River Education Association on this matter.

All-day, every-day kindergarten funds

The School Board decided earlier this year to pursue all-day, every-day kindergarten as part of its effort to make good on the district’s strategic plan sooner rather than later. It will cost about $1.3 million annually for a 5.5-hours-per-day program, which starting in 2014-15, the state will provide enough funding to cover.

“That will help, but not this year,” Hein noted. “We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do from an educational standpoint. We’re glad to see that the Legislature saw that same thing hopefully that we saw.”

It would more than cover a program to make a free program available to one-third of the kindergarten population deemed to be most at-risk that was considered by the district, but it would not cover all of it if the district went back to a 6.5 kindergarten day every day that costs about $1.7 million and includes specialists time for gym, music and art, administrators estimate.

The school district could explore turning the program back to a full 6.5 per day model for the 2014-15 school year or it could transition to a new model, it was noted Monday night at a regular meeting of the Elk River Area School Board.

The Minnesota Legislature approved increases for the per-pupil funding formula of 1.5 percent per year of the two-year biennium. The school district in its budgeting planned for 1 percent increases for each of the two years, so that brings in an extra $375,000 annually that hadn’t been accounted for.

The state also put an extra $38 million toward special education that the district hadn’t planned on, which translates to several hundred thousand dollars for District 728.

A plan approved by the Minnesota Legislature should make early learning more affordable to some families as $40 million has been allocated for scholarships.

“Overall, I’d say I was pleased they were able to do an inflationary increase and maybe even slightly better than that particularly in the second year,” Hein said. “It is a bit frustrating when it comes to things like staff development, where they don’t give the school district control or flexibility with funding.”

District officials were still navigating potential revenue from legislation, looking to reward districts like Elk River that have a foot in the metro but is not considered metro. The legislation calls for $31 per student that can be levied, but it’s not clear whether that can be stacked on top of other levies.

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