JEREMY OLSON COLUMN: Requring the state to fully fund mandates is crucial
If special education and transportation were fully funded by the state of Minnesota, Bemidji Area Schools would be operating a balanced budget.
In my 15 years as a public school superintendent, I have heard the phrase “why don’t you run your school like a business” more times than I would like to admit. To which my answer has been “I wish I could.”
The major culprit of not being able to run schools like a business comes down to unfunded mandates. Unfunded mandates are requirements on schools that dictate what we must do without the funding to support the requirements.
In essence, it is legislation that dictates what we must do and how we must do it, without the means of recouping all of the expenses incurred. This then requires schools to transfer funds out of K-12 educational dollars to fill in the gap created by these unfunded requirements.
An example of this is found in school transportation legislation. We must transport public, nonpublic and charter school students to and from school with the expectation that only public schools absorb excess expenses.
The cost to Bemidji Area Schools for just this transportation requirement alone is $1.5 million. Most of these expenses are created because of our geography, as our transportation area is two-thirds the size of the state of Rhode Island or roughly 825 square miles.
Public schools are required to absorb all transportation costs that exceed state revenue each year.
We also have underfunded requirements on special education that end up costing Bemidji Area Schools over $3 million a year over and above any revenue received. We believe in strong programming for both special education and transportation.
However, the underfunded requirements that are being placed on our school district with just these two programs alone cost Bemidji Area Schools over $4.5 million a year.
If just these two programs were fully funded by the state, Bemidji Area Schools would be operating a balanced budget.
I want to be clear that Bemidji Area Schools supports transporting students and providing special education services to students. These are necessary services for students and families.
What is troubling is the expectation that the public schools pick up the tab created by these requirements.
While I would love to be running the district “more like a business,” to do so would require fully funding the requirements that have been placed on us by the state and federal government. We need to stop expecting public schools to absorb the costs of requirements without funding these requirements.
There is light at the end of the tunnel, as the legislature is currently looking at some fixes to these longstanding funding disparities caused by unfunded requirements.
House File 18 and its companion bill in the Senate SF28 are pieces of legislation that are focused on reducing the disparity between what is paid out by the state for special education programming and the expenses encumbered because of these requirements.
Additionally, House File 877 is a bill that would help districts such as Bemidji recapture some of the unfunded costs of transportation. These bills are important to Bemidji Area Schools as they get us closer to fully funding the requirements that have been placed on public schools. We need your help.
Please consider contacting your legislators about the importance of these two bills to Bemidji Area Schools.
Strong public schools are necessary to create tomorrow’s workforce and we understand the gravity of our charge. We know the awesome responsibility and trust that our community has placed on us to ensure that our students are given the academic knowledge and experiences to become successful in tomorrow’s world.
Jeremy Olson is the superintendent of Bemidji Area Schools. He can be reached at (218) 407-9645 or email@example.com.