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Area superintendents react to Pawlenty proposal

In examining the education proposal made Monday by Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, area school superintendents seemed to agree that Pawlenty's idea of spending more school funding dollars on classroom education, rather than out-of-classroom costs, is a sound principle.

Where they disagreed with the governor was in how to determine whether that standard is being upheld.

Pawlenty's proposal, which will be put before the State Legislature for consideration during its 2006 session, is to require all school districts in the state to spend at least 70 percent of its overall funding on classroom expenditures -- i.e., teachers, textbooks and supplies.

Out of the state's 343 school districts, 67 are already in compliance with that standard, according to figures released by Pawlenty's office on Monday. Included among those 67 districts are Detroit Lakes and Frazee-Vergas. Waubun and Lake Park-Audubon, however, did not make the cut, at 51 and 63 percent, respectively.

"It's overly simplistic to suggest that 70 percent of funds should be targeted for direct instruction," said Waubun Superintendent Boyd Bradbury. "The intent is good -- you can't argue with the idea of putting the bulk of your (education) money toward instructional purposes.

"It's just that how we employ people or services is so greatly varied... it's difficult to get that equal comparison between districts."

For instance, Bradbury noted, his district contracts outside the district for several instructional and paraprofessional positions in special education -- which does not qualify as a classroom expense under current reporting standards.

He also pointed to the fact that Waubun currently spends about $230,000 a year for students from the district to attend school in neighboring districts due to court-ordered, out-of-home placements -- something that is also not deemed a classroom expense, yet is mandated by the state.

"We really have absolutely no choice -- if kids are placed (outside the district), we have to pay that tuition," he said.

Lake Park-Audubon Superintendent Dale Hogie agreed with Bradbury's assessment, noting that it's "hard to establish something that is going to fit all districts."

One problem, he said, is that there is some difference between districts as to how certain expenditures are "coded" in financial reports to the state -- one district might "code" technology costs as a classroom instructional expense, and another might code them as operational expense.

"If we move some of those expenses that can be coded as instructional (into that category), we could be at 70 percent too," he said.

Bradbury agreed.

"Because of how things are coded differently (by different districts, it's going to be difficult to get equal comparisons across all school districts," he said.

Hogie also noted that the figures Pawlenty's office was using came from the 2003-04 school year -- almost three full years ago.

And even those superintendents whose schools met Pawlenty's 70 percent standard had misgivings about the proposal.

"I don't have a problem with the governor looking at whether we're spending our education money in the right place... I have no problem with accountability," said Detroit Lakes Superintendent Lowell Niklaus. "But how do you define what money is going directly to the classroom and what's not?"

Niklaus also said some expenditures that fall outside the realm of classroom instructional needs, such as administration, transportation, school counseling services, and even extracurricular activities, are essential components of giving students a quality education.

"The governor's proposal has the underlying sound that school districts are spending money on things that don't impact education," Niklaus said. During the budget-cutting process that the district has undergone for the past two years, due to declining enrollment, a failed referendum and other factors, "We've spent a lot of time trying to avoid making cuts that will have a negative impact on the classroom," he added.

Frazee-Vergas Superintendent Deron Stender agreed.

"Maybe you don't need administrators, but I don't know how a district could operate without them," he said. "And how would a district operate without its support staff? They're both key pieces to the educational process."

All four pondered whether Pawlenty's proposal might have had politics, rather than improved education, as its primary motivation.

"This appears to be another attempt by our governor, and our government, to put the blame and the burden back on the school districts," Stender said. "I don't know of a district where you have an administrator who isn't responsible, or doesn't hold the bottom line that students' education is the number one priority."

"It's an election year," Bradbury said. "Politically, it (the governor's proposal)... looks good in the headlines."

"I'm not sure how much political maneuvering is going on in this," Hogie said. "The governor may be pointing the finger at school districts, saying we're not spending (education dollars) wisely, because we're always saying the state isn't funding us accurately."

"I hope this proposal at least gets a thorough discussion (by the Legislature) before any time or action is taken on it," Niklaus said.

"It's probably a good idea, but it just needs a little more thought and practical application," Stender added.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454