by Heidi L. Everett
The St. Cloud Area School District’s independent auditor gave the district positive news at its Nov. 18 Board of Education meeting.
“It’s a clean bill of health, if you will,” said Nancy Schulzetenberg of BergenKDV.
The report noted that per-pupil funding from the state would garner the same annual increase that it’s been receiving since 2016, 2 percent. The total amount of property taxes the school district has collected has been consistent during the last three years. The school district’s largest expense is focused on students, with 64 percent of expenditures on instruction. And finally, fund balances are in a positive position, Schulzetenberg said.
Expenditures per student were above the state average in 2019, largely in part to facilities spending following a fire at Apollo High School in 2018. Consistent special-education expenses that are not covered by the state also amplify expenditures. In 2020, however, expenditures per student are more in line with the state average.
The report also noted District 742 continues to serve fewer students who live within district boundaries. Since 2016, just more than 800 students have moved within the boundaries of the district for a total of 13,231 potential students. In 2020, the district is serving 9,975 students, which reflects a drop of 79 students from 2019. This drop in students served impacts the budget by reducing per-pupil funding, among other things.
Al Dahlgren, chair of the board’s finance and audit committee, commended district leadership for its fiscal responsibility.
“Increased fund balance,” he said, “shows incredible discipline on the part of our administrative team in controlling expenses.”
The fight for funds
Despite the fiscal discipline acknowledged, the St. Cloud district currently operates with a $12-million special-education deficit and an additional $2-million English language learning deficit, both of which are currently fully funded by money rerouted from the district’s general education fund. The use of general education funds to provide state-mandated services and special-education services creates an ongoing funding shortfall for general education.
Because of this, Dahlgren introduced a resolution to support Superintendent Willie Jett and his administration to engage with St. Cloud Educational Rights Advocacy Council, a local organization that is suing the State of Minnesota in an effort to settle funding shortfalls in order to improve educational opportunities to all students in District 742.
The SCERAC suit argues the state constitution notes its number-one obligation is to create a uniform system of public schools, Dahlgren said. The suit cites a previous court ruling that suggests each school is funded in a way that they can provide an education that meets all state standards for all students. This funding would vary from district to district based on demographics rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.
The St. Cloud Area School District is a “high-needs district,” Dahlgren said. Within the school system boundaries, the community has poverty, new-to-country language learners and greater special needs.
“The district is severely underfunded,” he said.
SCERAC is led by Jerry VonKorff, a former long-time school board member and local attorney. The suit was originally filed in February 2019. Stearns County District Court Judge Kris Davick-Halfen granted the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit in September 2019.
But recently, on Nov. 9, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision, noting SCERAC had the right to sue the state.
The next likely step in the process is to either enter negotiations with the state for full funding or to have the state appeal this decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
The resolution introduced and passed Nov. 18 gives permission for district leadership to engage with SCERAC during the suit.
“Let’s have the state use our district as a test to see what it takes to educate all students to state standards,” Dahlgren said.
Board Member Monica Segura-Schwartz also weighed in.
“We have been really good at paying attention to students and bettering our strategies to meet the needs of every student,” she said. “But we don’t fund at the same level of other countries. We need to invest in all students for our communities and our state.”