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Shifts 101: What new proposals would mean for Minnesota’s schools

To Brooklyn Center Superintendent Keith Lester it looks like a threat to painstaking progress made toward closing the achievement gap.

Back in the kinder, gentler era otherwise known as February, Gov. Mark Dayton released a proposed education budget that didn’t include much new money, but did offer something school administrators prize almost as much: A definite end to the practice of balancing the budget by delaying aid payments.

Finally, they crowed, someone understands that a shift, followed by another shift, followed by a handful more, actually adds up to a big ol’ cut.

Yesterday’s news that GOP lawmakers had proposed — and Dayton was seriously contemplating — increasing the amount of funding the state will delay paying to schools next year to 40 percent of what they are owed was greeted with incredulity.

“I guess if you put a gun to our heads and said, ‘Would you rather have a further shift or a cut,’ well, then, we’ll probably say the shift,” said Scott Croonquist, of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, in a voice that suggested he was actually thinking something more profane. “But that’s like saying ‘Do you want to have one arm cut off or two arms cut off?’ “

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‘What we have is a structural problem’
“It’s kicking the can down the road,” agreed Jim Grathwol, Minneapolis Public Schools’ lobbyist. “The toolbox has to have other tools in it, not just shifting aid payments. What we have is a structural problem.”

Their colleagues had some stark examples what 60/40 — or, for that matter, Dayton’s counterproposal of 63/37 — looks like from the schoolchild’s vantage, but first let’s take a refresher in Shifts 101. Learning Curve’s own boilerplate:

The state reimburses schools for the cost of educating pupils according to a formula that, drastically oversimplified, boils down to the number of hours kids log in seats. Not all kids, of course, stay quietly seated. Some move from one district to another, drop out, etc.

So the amount the state owes each district can be a moving target. Back in the day, Minnesota dealt with this by paying school districts for 90 percent of what they were owed in a given year in the year in question.

It was generally agree that holding back the other 10 percent pending final tallies was sensible and fair. The state was good for the money and districts could dip into and replenish their reserve funds.

Never really reimbursed
Somewhere along the line, cash-strapped politicians thought to hold back a little more — 15 percent at first, and then 20. As the amount grew, and compounded from year to year, it stopped seeming so sensible and fair. Much in the way that a consumer will never pay off a credit card by making minimum payments, the state never really reimbursed districts.

For the current year, the state is holding back 30 percent. As a result, a number of fiscally responsible districts are being forced to divert money from niceties like instruction to pay interest on what is the government equivalent of a payday loan.

Dayton had said in February that he saw no way to make the back payments right now, but was committed to lowering the size of the delay back to 10 percent by the end of the biennium.

You can see, then, where the announcement that not only has payday been postponed again, but the check may be for less than two-thirds of what’s supposedly owed, feels like an amputation to Croonquist and to his organization’s administrator members.

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A threat to painstaking progress
To Keith Lester, superintendent of schools in Brooklyn Center, it looks like a threat to painstaking progress made toward closing the achievement gap. Between the cutting and the shifting, he had to find $2 million to keep the doors open next fall — no small potatoes anywhere, but quite a lot to a small district that’s in statutory operating debt.

Keith Lester, superintendent of schools in Brooklyn Center
Keith Lester, superintendent of schools in Brooklyn Center

Most of the cuts he made are at the high-school level and translate into larger class sizes and the elimination of some electives. Also gone is the lone district librarian, whom he hired last year after several years of not having one, using a grant. The grant money has been, um, shifted.

Much more painful: He had to cut all 11 of the teachers who coached the district’s struggling elementary pupils in math and reading. Their intensive work had been paying off with rising test scores.

“When you have students with the needs ours have, losing 11 people is pretty significant,” Lester said yesterday. “Those scores were showing strong growth.”

Just in case you’re new to the party, another bit of boilerplate: Kids who read by third grade generally flourish, graduate on time and go on to pay taxes. Kids who don’t, don’t. 

Grant and levy requests
A pending grant request would allow Lester to hire four of the teachers back. Of course, most of the lights are off over at the state Department of Education, so he won’t be hearing whether his was the winning application anytime soon.

Next fall, the district will ask Brooklyn Center voters to approve a levy that would add an average of $80 to each homeowner’s tax bill. That might not sound like much, but Brooklyn Center is an impoverished city, with, Lester pointed out, “a lot of empty houses.” If it doesn’t pass, he will have to find another $650,000 to cut next year.

One has to wonder: Does asking residents of a blue-collar community to tax themselves so as to avoid asking Minnesota’s 7,000-plus millionaires for anything more constitute a cut, a shift or a delay that’s truly too costly.