Duluth school officials and legislators are issuing the same cry as fans of a baseball team that fell a little short: Just wait till next year.
“A lot of times in the legislative process it takes a long time to get things done,” said Gary Cerkvenik, a lobbyist at the Minnesota Legislature whose clients include the Duluth schools. “The Essentia project (for medical district funding) took two sessions, not one. I think that’s where we’re at, too.”
Cerkvenik was talking about revamping the state’s formula for special education funding, which was a major — but unfulfilled — “ask” for Duluth schools and other districts in the 2019 legislative session.
Cerkvenik joined School Board members and school officials along with state Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth; state Sen. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth; and state Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, who met in a steamy third-floor room of Historic Old Central High School Monday afternoon for an hourlong post-mortem on the year’s legislative activities.
The meeting was technically a committee of the whole meeting for the School Board, but the board members who attended largely deferred to a back-and-forth discussion among legislators and school officials.
The issue over special education funding, Cerkvenik said, is that public schools face a cap on what they can spend per student, whereas charters don’t. But public schools are required to pay 90 percent of the charter school’s cost per student.
The upshot is that Edison schools pay $23,000 per special education student, while Duluth schools pay $11,000, Cerkvenik said. Duluth public schools spending for special ed grew by 1.5 percent last year, he added, while Edison spending for the category grew by 18 percent.
“Why? There’s no cost control,” he said. “They send the bill here; 90 percent of that bill gets paid.”
Duluth schools joined with other districts during the session — particularly Rochester and Faribault — to ask the Legislature to place a cap on charter schools’ special ed spending, Cerkvenik said.
The public schools also sought a change in the formula for funding for special education, Superintendent Bill Gronseth said. The last time funding was addressed, in 2016, happened to be a year that Edison significantly increased its special education funding, he said. So instead of receiving $500,000 from the state as it had in the past, the district lost $1.3 million — and that wiped out almost half of the district’s reserve fund.
“We never saw it coming because we don’t know what they’re spending,” Gronseth said.
Because the formula has been maintained, Duluth schools’ losses have continued to mount, he said.
The Duluth schools therefore also sought a one-time reimbursement for the money lost under the 2016 formula, Cerkvenik said.
All of that was lost in the mad dash at the end when final budget decisions were made by “three people in a room,” he said.
But Olson said there was more to it than that.
“It had nothing to do with three people in the room,” she said. “They did not adopt policy that wasn’t in both bills.”
Speaking later, Gronseth confirmed that bills in the House and the Senate “didn’t quite match. And at the end, only things that match are going through.”
Nonetheless, Gronseth was one of several people who expressed cautious optimism about the 2020 session.
“We met with over 45 legislators this year,” he said. “We had a lot of support, bipartisan support by Republicans and Democrats — both (House and Senate). But sometimes things just don’t work out.”