Unfunded school mandates questioned

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NEW LONDON — Unfunded mandates for all districts and special grants for select school districts that were approved this legislative session came as a surprise to two local legislators.
During a meeting Monday with the New London-Spicer School Board, Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, and Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said they were not aware of several legislative issues that could have financial consequences for schools.
“This really bothers me,” said Baker, adding that legislators work hard during the legislative session but may not see everything that’s in a bill. “It’s disappointing,” he said, while promising to research the issues and bring back the information to the district.
“I have to go to bed knowing we voted for the right stuff,” Baker said.
The legislators were at the meeting to give an update on the session, which included changes in school equity funding that will mean an additional $32,000 for NLS.
While appreciative of that revenue, board member David Kilpatrick said it pales in comparison to the millions of dollars the Legislature handed out to some school districts for specific programs.
He cited, for example, a $500,000 student success grant to the Eden Prairie School District for career and college readiness coordination, counseling, academic support for middle and high school students and summer activities and before and after school tutoring programs.
Kilpatrick said every school district, including NLS, takes on those tasks and receives no extra funding to do it.
He said there is a long list of “hefty” one-time grants awarded to some schools this year that “leaves us out in the cold” because NLS and other rural districts aren’t part of the “metro-driven narrative.”
The unusual list of speciality school grants approved this year is a “disturbing trend” and reinforces the rural versus metro divide, said Kilpatrick, speculating that some of the grants may have been done to “win elections.”
What school districts really need, he said, is an increase in the funding formula.
“We just want the basic stuff,” he said.
Kilpatrick questioned a new requirement for schools to provide screening for dyslexia — with no funding provided to cover those costs. While it’s a service students need, he said most schools are not equipped or trained to screen for dyslexia.
Kilpatrick said special education is already underfunded and adding this new responsibility onto school districts without new money will be challenging.
Another “sleeper unfunded mandate” requires school districts that do not offer ACT or SAT tests to reimburse students for taking the college entrance exams at another location. Schools can seek reimbursement from the state, but Kilpatrick said with a limited pool of money in that state fund, it’s likely many schools won’t be paid back for that expense.
The board also quizzed the legislators on a bill authored by Rep. Dean Urdahl, a former NLS history teacher, that will require students to take a civics test that includes 50 of the 100 questions from the U.S. citizenship test.
While agreeing that it’s good to reinforce civics education and that Urdahl’s intentions were good, the board questioned the need for another required test.
“We’d rather teach it than just test for it,” Kilpatrick said.
Students must correctly answer 30 of 50 questions but will not be barred from graduation if they do not pass. It will be implemented for students going into ninth grade in the 2017-18 school year.