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School officials like state education bill

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WILLMAR -- For area school officials, there's a lot to like in the E-12 education bill signed by Gov. Mark Dayton earlier this week.

The bill includes a number of changes for the state's public schools -- increases in general education aid, funding for all-day kindergarten, changes in state testing, operating levy adjustments and continued funding for integration collaboratives. Schools will receive more funding for gifted/talented programs, and the special education funding formula is being revamped.

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In all, $485 million was added to the $15.7 billion education budget over the next two years. Minnesota's overall two-year budget is about $38 billion.

Spreadsheets showing how the changes affect individual districts will be available in early June, said Pam Harrington, director of business and finance for the Willmar Public Schools.

Harrington said she didn't want to talk about specific numbers without the final figures. "I will say this is the most I've seen done for education in quite a while," she said.

In many cases, new funding levels won't go into effect until fiscal year 2015, which begins on July 1, 2014, she said. A 1.5 percent increase in the general education formula will take effect for fiscal year 2014, but kindergarten funding and many other changes will come on line in fiscal 2015.

New London-Spicer Superintendent Paul Carlson said he was pleased with the bill and felt that local legislative representatives did a good job on education.

Area legislators said they were pleased in particular with being able to offer the kindergarten funding.

Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, said the education bill did have bipartisan support in the end, though some early debates were long and heated.

Many school districts in the area now offer extended kindergarten at no additional charge for families, even though the state pays for a half-day program. Several years ago, Willmar school officials estimated the cost of all-day, everyday kindergarten at more than $400,000 a year.

"We won't have to come up with that anymore," said Rep. Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar, a Willmar teacher. "That should bring some things back to the district, and all the districts."

Montevideo Superintendent Luther Heller said the additional kindergarten funding is "a tremendous move forward for the state." The change highlights the Legislature's emphasis on funding for early education.

Carlson estimated that NL-S could receive more than $200,000 a year in additional state aid for kindergarten. "It helps keep our program free," he said.

The testing change will use a "nationally normed college entrance exam" to test senior high students, doing away with exams the state-required graduation tests. While the law does not name a specific test, many of those who talked about the change referred to tests developed by ACT Inc.

Testing changes will be phased in over the next few years.

"Overall, it's a good deal for schools," said Willmar Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard. "It was time for a change in the testing. ... A lot of kids didn't graduate as a result of it over the years."

The new plan "will really tell us something about whether kids are career or college ready," Heller said. If ACT testing is used, he said, those scores will have meaning nationwide.

Sawatzky said she was pleased to see changes in state testing.

A Republican colleague argued that there would be less accountability with a different system. While she agrees that accountability is needed, Sawatzky said, that will still be there.

"There are better tests out there," she said. The current state tests don't help colleges evaluate potential students, but the new system could be more meaningful, she added.

Continued funding for the West Central Integration Collaborative was good news, Kjergaard said.

"They provide a lot of personnel to us, and a lot of support," he said. "I'm glad that they're going to be around."

Before the 2013 Legislature changed it, funding for integration efforts was on the verge of ending.

The integration collaborative works with school districts in the area to help students who are at risk of not graduating and to broaden cultural understanding.

The collaborative places a school success coordinator in each member's high school, and many districts couldn't afford the position on their own.

"Maintaining that position was really critical for us," Heller said. The school success program helps close achievement gaps and increase graduation rates for minority students, he added.

For a district like NL-S with a smaller minority population, the collaborative is equally important, Carlson said.

The program provides Spanish classes for elementary students and places a school success coordinator in the high school. "It's great to have another person to keep our students focused," he said.

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Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340
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