Viewpoint: Funding our schools is a shared responsibility
On my way home from work recently, I stopped at a store to pick up a few items. As I checked out, I was struck by the cost of the items. Grocery expenses are just part of the monthly bills that increase each year and make it more difficult for families to manage the household budget. We all continue to experience the increased cost of our necessities and monthly bills. As a school district, we face the same challenges as our costs of educating students and maintaining schools and facilities continue to rise. While the state has recently made strides to work toward better funding our schools, districts went for over a decade or more enduring significant reductions to budgets. As a result, the funding of schools shifted to become a shared responsibility between the Minnesota Legislature and the local community to maintain high quality education.
The past support from our community has helped us to provide strong programming for our students and, in turn, we have shown strong academic achievement. Last year, 92 percent of our students graduated within four years and our test scores remained well above state averages. We are confident our students graduate ready to be successful in college and/or competitive in the workforce. However, we are challenged to keep pace with the rising costs of education in an environment of limited revenues.
South Washington County Schools receive approximately 76 percent of our revenue from the state. Local support in the form of levy dollars makes up approximately 20 percent of our overall funds. The rest of the funding comes from the federal government, about 2 percent, and other funding sources, such as grants, make up the final 2 percent.
Over the years, the need for local support for schools has made referendum, or levy elections, a normal part of school funding, with 99 percent of school districts utilizing levy dollars. The levy funds last for 10 years. After that time, the levy expires and a school district needs to ask their community to renew the levy to keep the funding for an additional 10 years. That is why you will see "renewal" questions on the ballot to approve continued funding for money that has been embedded in the general funding for a decade or more.
As a district, we have worked to limit the amount we ask our community to contribute through levy elections. Four years ago was the first time in 10 years that we asked our community for an increase to our general funding. We have limited our levy elections by spending down our fund balance, or savings account, to avoid cutting programs and services for kids. We can no longer use our fund balance to maintain what we offer to our students. We have dropped under our board policy for the amount we should have in our fund balance. The board approved the reduction to avoid budget cuts.
In 2015, we determined we needed an additional $900 per pupil in levy funding to make up for the lack of funding from the state and to bring us back to a strong financial condition. However, to ask for the full $900 increase at once, would have been a lot for our community to absorb at one time. Therefore, we made the decision to tie our 2015 and 2017 levy elections together and ask for part of the needed funding, $525 per pupil, in 2015 and request the remaining amount, $375 per pupil, in 2017.
This fall we will have three questions on the ballot. A levy renewal (which has been in place for 20 years), the additional increase we identified as a need in 2015, and a capital question to increase funding for technological needs. We will be hosting community meetings explaining the three questions and the state of school funding. The last meeting will be 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 12, at Woodbury High School. In addition, we provide in-depth information on our website at www.sowashco.org/Election2017. Please join us at a conversation, visit our website and please vote on Nov. 7. Thank you.