Proposed legislation puts ‘good’ districts in precarious positions

BY JEFF PRIESS

GUEST COLUMNIST

Robbinsdale Area Schools has worked hard over the past several years under difficult economic and state funding conditions to ensure students receive an excellent education. We are proud of our student and staff accomplishments at local, state and national levels.

However, this hard work is in jeopardy and could hinge on several key decisions by legislators over the next few weeks.

The work of our district is to meet each student where they are academically and provide the knowledge and skills they need to pursue whatever form of post-secondary education they choose. Over the past five years, the Minnesota legislature has made decisions that froze the funding formula for three years (2008-2011), and provided $50 increases for two years (2011-2013), not nearly enough to even cover inflationary costs.

Our school board and administration have made difficult decisions to reallocate resources to both invest in new programs and stabilize school finances.

To make investments in new programs that ensure our students are competitive in the 21st century required rigorous assessment of opportunities and choices about the level of resources to be allocated between educational and operational programs. These efforts included efforts to rein in health care costs and transportation costs, while still maintaining an excellent level of service to all.

Due to those efforts, we were able to open the School of Engineering and Arts (SEA) this past fall, and will open a STEM magnet program at Robbinsdale Middle School in the fall of 2013.

We have piloted hybrid classes that combine online and classroom learning, and integrated technology more fully into instruction and learning. We initiated extension math and reading classes at the middle schools in order to help students who needed more instruction in those areas.

Currently Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposed budget provides school districts with a 1 percent funding increase for next year. The Governor’s proposal provides school districts additional funds for special education to help defray every district’s “cross subsidy” – the amount that a district has to take out of its general fund to cover costs for mandated special education.

(For our district, that’s approximately $9.5 million of regular education dollars for special education.)

However, there are two proposed legislative areas that will actually set our district back.

The first is the Public Employees Insurance Program (PEIP), which allows employees to become part of a statewide insurance program that, sometimes, helps to keep costs down. Districts can choose to enter the PEIP program even without the legislation.  While PEIP is good for some districts, for others, it is not.

If Robbinsdale Area Schools is required to participate in PEIP, we estimate that we will incur an additional $3 million in insurance premiums, it will result in a reduction of employees’ network of physician choice, and the district will be forced to close the in-house NeoPath Clinic that is saving the district more $100,000 annually.

The second concerns integration revenue, which is in jeopardy. Our district receives approximately $2 million annually, providing funds for additional teachers, tutors and help for families. Because the 30 percent integration levy was not reinstated in the Senate bill, 30 percent of the integration revenue for our district would be eliminated.

Our school board has worked hard to be excellent financial stewards. The state must be a partner in these efforts. I urge you to contact your legislators and tell them to ensure the House PEIP bill (HF573) is amended to be voluntary and the 30 percent integration levy is reinstated in the Senate bill.

 

Jeff Priess is the Executive Director of Business Services for Robbinsdale Area School District 281.