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VIEWPOINT: Bemidji Area Schools calls for predictable, forecasted state funding

In Bemidji Area Schools, our mission is to empower each learner to succeed in our diverse and changing world. But we cannot do it alone. We rely on state funding.

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In Bemidji Area Schools, our mission is to empower each learner to succeed in our diverse and changing world. But we cannot do it alone. We rely on state funding.

We thank Rep. Matt Grossell, R-Clearbrook, and Sen. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, for the increases in education funding in the previous biennium. However, now is the time to fix education funding going into the future. Schools like ours need Gov. Tim Walz and the state Legislature this session to fulfill the state’s 2003 promise to adequately fund public schools with part of the $1.54 billion state surplus.

Funding education is a constitutional duty of the governor and the Legislature. State funding has not kept up with inflation since 2003. That stacks up to nearly $600 per pupil in Bemidji Public Schools, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. This underfunding has led to a higher burden for the taxpayers in the Bemidji School District and prevents the school district from implementing programs that would support students. Our student transportation costs were underfunded last year by $500,000 dollars; our special education funding shortfall last year amounted to more than $4 million. The shortfall also interferes with the ability of district administrators and board members to effectively plan and execute on our community’s vision for education.

This $600 gap per pupil is especially troublesome for Greater Minnesota school districts such as ours that are more dependent on the basic formula than metro area districts that have greater access to local operating referendum revenue due to higher household incomes and property wealth.

Local voters across the state have had to fill the gap for basic education services. In our community, local voters have had to support Bemidji Public Schools with more than $5 million in additional local funding every year as a result of the state’s underfunding of education. As a result, much of the state’s fiscal responsibility and burden has fallen on the shoulders of local taxpayers.

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While campaigning for governor, Walz stated that, “Communities should not be reliant entirely on local property taxes to fund schools.” In addition, he added, “That’s a recipe for racial and geographic disparities.” Earlier this month, Walz spoke to a packed ballroom of school board members at the Minnesota School Boards Convention where he said, “Our goal is to make referendums rare or extinct.”

Walz advocated for “One Minnesota Vision” where a child’s education is not determined by his or her zip code during his inaugural address. In his platform, Walz said his administration will “fully and equitably fund our schools and reject the budgetary gimmicks we’ve used in the past, because all kids should have access to a high quality education regardless of their zip code.” Together with Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, he said they “will ensure funding for our schools that is not only stable, but equitable.”

In his December press conference on his budget plans, he called on Minnesota lawmakers to have an honest conversation about the impact of inflation. We agree.

Meeting the needs of students requires 3 percent and 3 percent on the formula this biennium and predictable, forecasted increases above inflation into the future. This would provide predictable budgeting and enable Bemidji Public Schools to be able to afford additional school counselors, social workers, and mental health supports that our students need, as well as to keep the many great programs our students enjoy in our schools.

Without the approval of 3 percent and 3 percent and predictable, forecasted increases above inflation this legislative session, Bemidji Public Schools will need to continue to burden local taxpayers with over $500,000 for busing and more than $4 million in special education costs.

At some point, the district may need to take a serious look at areas where programs may need to be reduced or cut if Minnesota does not step up and take ownership of its constitutional duty to fund the education of Minnesota students properly.

As Walz says in his platform, “A child’s chance to succeed should not depend on living in a particular zip code. If we’re serious about every child’s future, let’s do what works. We need resources in all schools so students have the support professionals they need (nurses, school counselors, and social workers), more one-on-one time to learn in safe and inviting classrooms, and a well-rounded curriculum.”

Using the state’s General Fund is the most equitable, stable and responsible way to have local communities address the needs of their students. Please join us in calling on Gov. Walz and the Legislature this session to step forward for students and fulfill the state’s constitutional requirement to adequately fund education. Our students -- and their future -- depend on it.

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Tim Lutz is superintendent of Bemidji Area Schools.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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