MPS leaders optimistic about legislative priorities

School Board approved district’s 2019 legislative agenda Nov. 13

Minneapolis Public Schools’ lobbyist voiced confidence earlier this month about the district’s chances of making headway on its legislative agenda this spring.

Josh Downham, the district’s director of government relations, told the School Board Nov. 13 that he thinks the state’s new political leaders could be more receptive to the district’s priorities. His comments came a week after Minnesotans elected DFLer Tim Walz, a former high school geography teacher, as governor and flipped the state House of Representatives from GOP to DFL control. Republicans retained control of the state Senate by a one-vote margin.

“I think you’re going to see a different set of priorities — less focus on tax cuts and more focus on investments in K–12,” Downham said. “I think we will see a much more robust discussion.”

Downham and MPS leaders have four overarching priorities for the upcoming legislative session, including advocating for increased statewide funding for special education. The district’s special education costs outpace its special education revenue by about $56 million annually, which forces MPS to use general funds to cover those services.

“We really want to be aggressive in looking at the underfunding of special education,” Josh Downham told the School Board Nov. 13.

Statewide, special education costs outpaced special education revenues by over $670 million in fiscal year 2017, according to a legislative report. The report predicted that the gap would increase to over $707 million in fiscal year 2018.

MPS wants the state to eliminate that gap within four years by providing $225 million in additional funding for special education in the next biennium and $525 million in the following biennium. Still, Downham said that wouldn’t address the issue of federal underfunding of special education.

“It’s a very ambitious goal but I think something that we need to continue to advocate for,” Downham said.

Downham also noted the issue of tuition billing, which occurs when charter schools and other school districts bill MPS for providing special education services to Minneapolis residents. The district spends about $22 million annually on providing services for those students, Downham said, but has no control over the cost or quality of those services. MPS would like the Legislature to address that issue this spring.

The district is also advocating for the Legislature to increase the per-pupil funding formula 3 percent a year for the next two years and to subsequently index it to inflation. It’s a priority for which Walz has voiced support.

Downham said Minnesota schools lost $615 in per-pupil funding to inflation between 2003 and 2018, noting MPS would have $22 million in additional revenue if the formula had kept up with inflation.

Other legislative priorities for MPS include increased funding for English-learner services and career and technical education, expanded school-based pre-kindergarten programs and additional school-based mental health grants. The district also wants the Legislature to allow school boards to renew existing operating and capital projects levies that voters have approved without requiring additional referenda elections.

Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, said there will be different priorities in the state House and Senate, adding that divided government generally means incremental progress. But he said his association is hopeful the Legislature will address special education this session, noting the significant attention it has received.

“Legislators are becoming more and more aware that the shortfall, or cross-subsidy as we call it in special education, is really having a major impact on school district budgets,” he said.

Croonquist said his association will be pushing for the indexing of the per-pupil formula as a top priority this session. He also noted the shortfall of state funding for English-learner services, a shortfall that exceeded $95 million in 2016. English-learner expenses in MPS outpaced revenue by over $13 million that year, according to the association.

The Minnesota Department of Management and Budget will release a budget forecast at the end of November that Walz will use to develop his budget priorities, Downham said. At the end of February, the department will release a second forecast that will determine how much funding is available for the next biennium.