Legislative changes don't solve local budget challenges
The legislative session has come to an end, and while there is much work yet to do to sort out the complexities of the new education bill, the bottom line is some good news for Stillwater Area Public Schools. For the first time in many years, the state made broad investments in education by providing early childhood scholarships, funding all-day kindergarten, providing a small increase in the funding formula, and beginning to address some of its unfunded mandates.
The new education bill is a first step in addressing the large budget gap caused by years of relatively flat funding, rising costs to operate our schools, and increasing student needs. This action helps, but does not solve our ongoing funding challenges. We will still need to renew and increase our expiring operating levy this fall to provide the education our community expects and our students deserve. Many of the funding increases provided were already anticipated as we planned next year's budget and levy request. The action taken by the state was calculated in the levy proposal and prevents us from having to seek any additional funding above this request from our local residents.
The biggest change that we will see as a result of the new education bill is state funding for our all-day every day kindergarten program. For years, our district has subsidized this program by making cuts in other areas of our budget in order to ensure our youngest learners get a solid learning foundation. The state has also authorized a small increase (1.5 percent) in the per pupil funding formula, which will generate about $750,000 for our school district each year. There is also a chance for new funding aimed at beginning to address the needs of our special education students. In the past, we've had to pay more than $5 million out of our general fund to cover the many state and federal mandates related to special education. While this new funding hopefully helps to offset some expenses, we will still need to subsidize much of these costs.
The education bill also places a renewed emphasis on college and career readiness, literacy, and closing the achievement gap. It's exciting to see our legislators and governor support the same initiatives outlined in our new Bridge to Excellence strategic plan.
There is a lot we don't know yet, but one thing is certain. With an operating levy set to expire, we know our financial needs remain unchanged. We have yet to determine how new legislation will impact the details of the levy question. In addition to funding changes, the new bill changes the current tax structures and attempts to resolve the inequity of funding between districts by allowing school boards to authorize a small equalization levy (there appears to be a cost savings to residents if the school board would elect to do this). Legislation will also change the way pupil units are calculated as part of the funding formula, which may have an impact on the language of the levy request. Our school board will need to make some decisions about how these changes could impact the levy question. Stay tuned for more information.
I believe it is vitally important to be clear and transparent about our ongoing needs. In the interest of simplicity and time, I've shared the basics here. I invite you to visit our website, www.stillwaterschools.org or contact me anytime to request even more information. As we move forward, our efforts to share, communicate and answer questions will be essential to understanding how to meet the future needs of our young people.
Lunn is superintendent of Stillwater School District