New bill to close the special education funding gap for school districts in MN

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(ABC 6 News) – This week, lawmakers are talking about the gap in funding for special education in Minnesota schools. There’s a new bill aimed at closing that gap by having the state pay for special education programs, which will cost about $3 billion over the next four years.

Currently, school districts are paying millions for these special education programs, but at a time when most schools are struggling to make ends meets, some lawmakers and school officials say it’s time for the state to do their duty to the next generation.

Marian Aanerud has two sons in the special education programs within Rochester Public Schools.

“If they didn’t have those types of supports at school, if it were underfunded or understaffed, they wouldn’t be getting the education that they are getting now,” Aanerud explained. “Every family should have what we have. It has been borderline lifesaving to have that sort of support.”

Her son, Johannes, attends Dakota Middle School and is in one of these programs.

“It’s really nice to be there and have other kids like me and have teachers that understand,” he said.

But now, lawmakers are deciding who should be paying for these programs.

Currently, the state government pays for 6.4% of each school district’s special education program costs.

The remaining approximate 94% is up to the school district, which is called a cross subsidy.

“When we aren’t funding the cross subsidy, what we’re doing is basically shifting those costs to the district and when we shift costs to the district what were doing is shifting it to property taxes,” explained co-author of the bill, Rep. Kim Hicks (DFL-Rochester).

In southeastern Minnesota, RPS has a cross subsidy of about $15 million.

In Austin Public Schools, the district is paying $5.8 million.

“The amount of support that the state provides is much less than the actual cost of providing the services to the students that they need and are required to have,” added Koni Grimsrud, the director of student services with RPS.

According to Grimsrud, RPS has about 3,500 students within the RPS district that are a part of the special education programs. Andrew Beenken-Adams, the executive director of finance and operations with APS, says it has about 880 special education students in the district.

Districts across the state then use general funds to cover the difference. With only so much money to go around, school officials are put in a tight spot.

“It does create that unintentional pitting of a gen-ed student versus a special education student,” explained Beenken-Adams.

The HF18 bill, sponsored by Rep. Dan Wolgamott (DFL-St. Cloud), would require the state to cover 100% of special education programs. The argument against the bill comes from lawmakers who say the federal government should be fitting the bill. But others say, that may never happen and schools need the money now.

Money to fund programs like the ones Marian’s sons use everyday.

“I appreciate very much the fact that those supports existed, and I got the support that I needed, and I cant imagine what it would be like if I didn’t have that,” she added.

The chair of the Rochester Public School board, Cathy Nathan, testified in support of this bill in St. Paul.

After a committee hearing this week, the bill is likely to be put into a larger education package that would then move on to the House floor.