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Duluth-area school districts hope for sizeable state funding hikes this spring

"I think that there’s a great chance that we’re going to have a robust funding of education this year," Duluth Public Schools Superintendent John Magas said Wednesday.

Minnesota State Capitol, St. Paul, Minnesota
Minnesota State Capitol, St. Paul, Minnesota
Don Davis / Forum News Service file photo
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DULUTH — Noting a record-breaking $17.6 billion state budget surplus, leaders at three of the region’s largest public school districts hope Minnesota lawmakers OK a pair of particularly large funding hikes this spring.

Duluth Public Schools, Proctor Public Schools and Hermantown Community Schools are all part of a broader push for a 5% increase to the state’s per-student funding formula for general education next fiscal year, plus a second 5% increase the year after that. That would raise the approximately $6.8 billion sent to public schools statewide via that formula by a little more than $1 billion by the 2024-2025 school year, according to staff at the Minnesota House of Representatives’ nonpartisan research department.

That “five and five” proposal, as it’s sometimes informally called, would give the Duluth school district the financial room to pay for more staff, new technology and curriculum, further mental and emotional health support for students, better safety and behavioral support, and more, according to a draft list of legislative priorities reviewed by School Board members Tuesday.

“If somebody asked me to look into my lobbyist crystal ball, I think it’s going to be a good year for education,” Jeff Anderson, a government and public affairs consultant at the Costin Group, told board members. “I think the political realities involved with the surplus and all of the competing interests out there, nobody’s going to get everything that they want, but I think that when you listen to what the governor has said and legislative leadership, education is right there at the top of the list.”

Gov. Tim Walz, a former Mankato teacher who was voted to a second term in early November, said on Tuesday that the surplus means the state can spend more on education, child care and infrastructure. He also told the Sahan Journal that the state has an “historic opportunity” to “fully” fund education.

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In recent years, lawmakers have typically OK'd 2% increases to that per-student formula, which lays the foundation for Minnesota school districts’ annual budgets.

“The golden opportunity that we have to make Minnesota an even better and fairer and more inclusive and more prosperous state is there,” said DFL Gov. Tim Walz. Legislative Republicans said the

John Magas, the Duluth district’s superintendent, told the News Tribune on Wednesday that he was cautiously optimistic about the proposed funding hike.

“We might not get the full five and five,” he said, “but I think that there’s a great chance that we’re going to have a robust funding of education this year.”

The three Duluth-area districts and others statewide are also renewing a push for more special education funding. Minnesota schools are required to educate students with special needs, but the money they’re given for that purpose by the state and federal governments is generally less than what they spend educating those students, resulting in a “cross subsidy” that prompts districts to divert general education money into special education. Magas claimed that the district spends approximately $11 million worth of general education money on special education.

“We have that responsibility and we have that ethical need to make sure that we’re meeting the needs of those students, but it comes with a really high cost,” he said. “We believe that it’s important for the state and also the federal government to step up and take care of the responsibility of funding that.”

Other priorities on the district's tentative 10-item wish list include a sales tax exemption for the materials the district is using to build a new headquarters near the former Central High School, plus one-time payments for school safety measures as well as career and technical education equipment. District leaders are also angling for the state to broaden the allowable uses for long- and medium-term maintenance funding, and to allow school boards to renew current and future operating levies.

Proctor and Hermantown’s lists are generally shorter, according to interviews with their superintendents.

Like Duluth, they’re also requesting the pair of 5% general ed funding hikes, plus increases to special education funding.

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Wayne Whitwam, who heads Hermantown Community Schools, said he hoped to have one of the two proposed general education funding hikes match inflation.

“We pay part-time custodians $14 an hour, and then we wonder, ‘Why can't we find anybody?’” Whitwam said. “Well, they can get that at just about any business, so it's hard to fill positions if we don't give them raises, don't increase those salaries. We think if we get an inflationary adjustment … we can try to get those salaries up.”

Duluth’s tentative platform calls for the 5% increase to be indexed for inflation.

Unlike Duluth, though, Hermantown and Proctor are also asking for a mechanism by which the Northern Lights Special Education Cooperative can pay for a centralized building. The two Duluth-adjacent districts are part of the co-op , via which they pool money for special education services. Duluth Public Schools is not.

The co-op rents a patchwork of classroom space across Northeastern Minnesota, according to Proctor Superintendent Kerry Juntunen. Money for a central building — or a legal mechanism by which the co-op could raise or tax money for it — could let member districts do something “really spectacular” for their special education students, Juntunen said.

The governor is scheduled to publish his budget recommendations for the next two fiscal years by Jan. 24. The Legislature is scheduled to convene Jan. 3.

This story was updated at 10:57 a.m. on Dec. 9 to clarify the nature of the $6.8 billion sent to Minnesota schools. It was originally posted at 2:11 p.m. p.m. on Dec. 8.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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