Public-education funding is complex. Many people wonder why school districts continually speak of underfunding and seem to constantly ask for money through referendums and levies. To appreciate the complexity, one needs to understand the special-education cross subsidy and how it affects school district budgets. In short, the special-education cross subsidy measures the difference between special-education expenditures and associated revenues, including state categorical aids, federal categorical aids, third-party revenue, and state and local revenues.

What happens to the unfunded portion of special-education costs? A school district's general fund covers the shortage between the revenue the district receives in the special-education expenditures each year. This happens in every Minnesota public school district. In other words, these underfunded costs come directly out of districts' general funds, essentially requiring the districts to pay these costs from the fund that is to be used for other more general purposes.

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Kirk Schneidawind
Kirk Schneidawind

The underfunding of special education has been a long-standing problem at both the state and federal level and has been swept under the rug for years. For as long as I can remember, special-education costs have never been fully funded. The federal government is required to fund 40 percent of special-education costs, yet federal funding levels have never been above 18 percent.

For school districts, the unfunded and underfunded cross subsidy for special education can be significant. The statewide total cross-subsidy amount for school districts for fiscal year 2016 was $679 million - a 5.6 percent increase from fiscal year 2015. Between the rising need and insufficient state and federal aid, the amount of funding school districts as a whole in Minnesota will be required to pay from their general-education funds for special-education costs will reach an average of $815 per student in fiscal year 2017.

The number of students identified as in need of special-education services at some level has climbed significantly in the past few years. Commensurately, the cost of those services also has risen, leaving districts to grapple with how to pay for more students, more services, and more mandates - with nowhere near enough money to pay for it all. More and more districts are forced to levy for these mandated, yet essential, services.

The solution isn't to find another way; the solution is to hold the state and federal government accountable.

Yet, for years, there has been no viable plan to fix this. Many people have asked if it is even worth trying to fix. Recently, the issue was brought to the forefront by school district leaders asking lawmakers to address the complexity and the cost of the special-education system.

The Minnesota School Boards Association membership has started a statewide initiative on behalf of our school districts and the 850,000 public school students. School boards are passing resolutions asking for increased federal and state funding and, at the state level, to create a work group or task force to fix special-education funding, specifically with a focus on the impacts of the new special-education funding formulas, the projected cross subsidy, and a specific timeline to accomplish these goals.

More than 150 school board resolutions were hand-delivered to Minnesota's congressional members in February when the Minnesota School Boards Association's board of directors met with our state's political leaders. The number of resolutions approved by school boards has now risen to more than 175.

In the past few years, legislative task forces and work groups have made significant strides with school facilities and teacher licensure. Such groups will bring the pressing funding issues to light and push for concrete solutions. This issue is part of the Minnesota School Boards Association's 2018 legislative agenda and will be discussed with legislators during this session.

We urge you to join us to make an impact this year by working with your local school boards and asking Minnesota legislators to take decisive action in the development of a clear path to fully fund special education. All our students deserve this.

Kirk Schneidawind of St. Peter is executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association. He wrote this exclusively for the News Tribune in response to the March 25 story, “Who should pay? Duluth, other districts advocate for changes in how special education expenses are covered.”