Thursday, April 10, 2008

Comprehensive Funding Reform Unveiled. Mark down Thursday, April 10, 2008, as the day when comprehensive funding reform hit the ground . . . running. The House K-12 Funding Division heard HF 4178, the recently introduced legislation authored by Representative Mindy Greiling and inspired by the work of PS Minnesota. After the bill was described by staff and many of the proposal's provisions were discussed by members, the committee received public testimony. First up was long-time PS Minnesota point man, Dr. Greg Vandal (pictured at left) who has served as the Doctor/Father for this effort. Armed not only with sound policy sense when it comes to education funding, Dr. Vandal has a strong sense of justice. Representative Greiling dubbed him the "king" of PS Minnesota, but I think of Greg more as a "prince" of a guy. Greg provided a very good framework of where PS Minnesota originated and how it grew from a kernel of an idea to something that the Legislature can now get its head (and hopefully heart and hands) around.

Greg wasn't the only person with a SEE connection providing testimony today. Stillwater school board member Kathy Buchholz (at left) gave very spirited testimony, pledging Stillwater's complete support for a public school funding system that provides both adequacy and equity. Fresh off a difficult and only partially successful referendum campaign in which only one of three ballot questions passed, Kathy provided a very compelling depiction of how on-going referendum campaigns split communities apart and provide only temporary relief from the revenue shortages that result from a lack of state funding. Often times, some of the best testimony comes from parents and school board members, who experience first hand the problems that result from a lack of funding. Kathy did a marvelous job of passionately describing the plight that the Stillwater district is facing and how comprehensive funding reform is the only way to provide meaningful solutions to funding issues being faced in Stillwater and throughout Minnesota.

Next Friday, at the SEE April meeting, Representative Greiling, along with members of the House K-12 budget staff, will be presenting HF 4178 to SEE membership. This will give us a shot at gaining a greater understanding of the machinery in the bill and philosophy behind that machinery. I urge all SEE members to make arrangements to attend. This is going to be a golden opportunity.

Wednesday Night on the Road. The Rocori high school cafeteria was packed Wednesday ev evening as the House K-12 Funding Division rolled into town to discuss special education funding and some of the issues that have caused problems for school districts during this fiscal year. When the session ended in May of 2007, most thought the funding category to be worried about the least was special education, which received a funding bump of over $200 million. But in the waning days of the session, money was diverted from the proposed special education appropriation to cover a few budget holes and program requests leaving us with the knowledge that the appropriation would meet approximately 87% of the formula amount.

Added to this was a change from funding based on the second-prior year to current year funding. Previous to this school year, school districts had the opportunity to "sit" on their expenditure totals and make sure they were totally accurate before submitting them to the state. The two-year lag in funding gave both districts and the Minnesota Department of Education time to exchange and audit numbers, making the final reimbursement levels--at least in the basic formula--somewhat predictable. With funding now based on current year costs, districts have to submit their estimates sooner and if those estimates aren't accurate, they may suffer a funding shortfall.

This is what has happened during the current school year. Cost estimates forwarded by districts to the state were much lower than in previous years according to the testimony of Dr. Tom Melcher, leading to even bigger problems as a proration was applied against these lower estimated amounts. Dr. Melcher provided a clear and concise description of the problem and has been very straightforward in his attempts to remedy this situation. Much of the difficulty is due to the change to from the two-year lag to current funding and those problems shouldn't be repeated in the future.

Special education funding wasn't the only issue fielded by the panel. St. Cloud Student Services Director Elisabeth Lodge Rogers and Benton-Stearns Education District Director Duane Borgeson testified on the difficulty caused by state special education rules that exceed federal rules and statutes. Representative Greiling has long been an advocate of bringing state regulations into closer congruence with federal law and Rogers' and Borgeson's testimony provided concrete example of how the state's rule-making, when it goes too far, stacks costs onto districts.

Because the hearing was in the St. Cloud area, St. Cloud area legislators were present. Representatives Larry Hosch (DFL-St. Joseph) and Larry Haws (DFL-St. Cloud)--both pictured at the left--served in the capacity a "hosts" for the hearing. As I snapped this picture, I don't think they were talking with Holdingford superintedent John Haas. If they had been, they could have done a "Haws on first, Hosch's on second, and Haas on third" routine. All we really needed was Republican State Representative Larry Howes to make it all the more entertaining (and maybe a bit more confusing). But when you're talking about special education funding, how much more entertainment can you actually take? I mean, really.

No comments: