Talking about education
A small group of southeast Minnesota legislators descended on the forum room at Kasson-Mantorville High School last week to listen and ask questions. They came to hear representatives of area school districts, primarily district superintendents, speak about the challenges facing schools, what they need and where they feel that state government is coming up short.
It was a lengthy session, a bit over three hours.
The superintendents addressed a variety of issues, many of which have been brought up before. They talked about state funding for schools, unfunded mandates, staffing shortages, mental health issues, and the lingering effects of COVID.
Dr. Matt Hillman, superintendent of the Northfield schools, gave a history of state funding of education.
It’s in the state constitution, he said, that the state must provide funds for public education and currently those state monies are about 70 percent of a school district’s revenue.
“Supporting public schools is part of our DNA,” he said.
The problem, Hillman and the other superintendents told the legislators, is that the funding formula is outdated, has not kept up with inflation and does not treat all schools equally.
Add to this that mandates have been added to school district without giving the districts the money to carry them out and that it is becoming harder to find qualified teachers and staff members who are also being affected by inflation in their personal finances.
Regarding the mandates, several superintendents pointed out that mandates are not all about money. Mandates also take up additional staff time that adds to the costs.
Another topic the superintendents touched on was mental health issues for both the students and the staff. There were issues in this area before COVID and those issues have only been magnified and increased since COVID.
As these and other issues were brought up, and the legislators listened and asked questions, it was apparent that there was general agreement on at least one subject — local control.
That is an area where we think that all of us can agree.
Every school district in the state is different and so it is only natural that they face different challenges and have different concerns.
Scott Hall, the superintendent of the Southland Public School, was one of the speakers. He said that Southland has an enrollment of a little over 400 students. Another speaker was Kent Pekel, superintendent of the Rochester district. Both men spoke about school finance issues.
It seems that it is quite obvious that although both the Southland and Rochester School Districts share a purpose to educate their students, those districts are very different. The issues in an urban area like Rochester are not the same as a very small district like Southland.
And looking at the larger picture, even though both Rochester and the Twin Cities are urban areas, they are not alike.
In short, every district is different.
Which brings us to an area where we should all be able to agree.
Yes, there need to be some standards for our public schools that should be established at a state level.
But, when it comes to the basics of how to operate a school system, the local school board knows best what is needed. They know their communities, the students, the families, businesses. They can determine best how to educate their students beyond those basic standards. And the local school board is accountable to the people who live in the district, the ones who also help support the schools financially.
There was not really any disagreement from the legislators in attendance.
But that also means that it is important for the residents of the districts to do their homework. Learn how schools operate, be informed and become part of the solutions.