The Burnsville-Eagan-Savage District and other districts across the state need more funding from the state for pre-kindergarten, special education and school safety programs, district officials told the Minnesota Commissioner of Education this week.
Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker and key members of her staff met with Burnsville-Eagan-Savage District officials on April 2 to discuss the impact of the governor’s education budget on district programs and budget shortfalls.
Ricker toured Burnsville High School to learn about the Pathways Program and discussed the district’s specific budgetary needs in a roundtable discussion. The conversation centered around how Gov. Tim Walz’s proposed budget would impact the district’s preschool program and school safety.
Ricker commended the district’s approach to addressing student mental health issues and heard from district officials about what happens when money for key programs falls short.
Superintendent Cindy Amoroso said the district has faced budget cuts every year in her six years as superintendent.
She said the district is anticipating around $5.5 million in budget reductions in 2020-2021 following $7 million in cuts next year.
“There are some in the community who assume that is because of declining enrollment — however, we have a $12.7 million cross-subsidy for special ed,” Amoroso said, referring to the gap between what the district pays for special education services and what the state and federal governments reimburse.
If state funding had kept up with inflation, the district would have $5 million more in the general fund for next year, Amoroso said.
Cindy Check, the district’s early childhood programs coordinator, said the district’s voluntary pre-kindergarten program, which is offered at nine of the 10 elementary schools, has been essential to preparing students for kindergarten.
Check said the voluntary pre-kindergarten programming makes lasting impacts on student learning and also builds relationships with families.
One of Walz’s budget principles would address pre-kindergarten funding, which is set to expire, by investing $47 million into free public preschool programs.
District officials told Ricker making voluntary pre-kindergarten spending a permanent part of the state’s budget is a top priority.
A $17 million special levy for school safety is another one of Walz’s budget proposals.
“If the Legislature appropriates more money for grants to put in cameras and metal detectors and secure entrances, that is not going to help us,” Amoroso said, adding personnel instead would make a difference.
The district plans to lay off 55 teachers in order to make $7 million in budget adjustments for next year. Amoroso said at least half of those jobs would have been saved if the district had cut positions related student support services instead.
“I believe that in order to increase the safety in our schools, we need to able to address the social, emotional needs of our kids,” Amoroso said. “And that is what we are currently not able to do without taking the money from somewhere else.”
The district currently employs school psychologists, social workers, cultural liaisons, behavioral specialists and more wrap-around services without state support to address mental health needs and keep schools safe, Amoroso said.
“We know that the job of the teacher in the classroom today is overwhelming in many ways, and when I hear from teachers, usually what I hear about is their inability to address the mental health needs of the kids,” she said. “And it’s not because they’re not skilled, it’s because that’s not what we go to school for.”
Amoroso told Ricker a funding increase through the general education formula would be the best way for districts to enhance school safety because it allows districts to prioritize how to spend their school safety dollars.
“We need to the money to have the flexibility to hire in an ongoing way — not a one time grant,” Amoroso said.
Ricker said she began her teaching career in 1992 — the height of the zero-tolerance approach to student discipline.
“It was all about control and compliance. There was no expectation that I actually built community,” she said. “What you’re doing is you’re centering the relationship instead of centering the behavior.”