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Dayton plan gets an 'F' from DL district

When Gov. Mark Dayton laid out his budget plan for the next two years, there were winners and there were losers.

It appeared that education was among the winners as Dayton announced his intentions to stick $600 million new dollars into the education system, but not all school districts would give the budget smiley stickers and gold stars.

If the budget passes the way it's written now, Detroit Lakes would still be worse off than it was before, according to Detroit Lakes Schools Superintendent Doug Froke and a lobbying firm called Ewald Consulting -- which was hired by the state's superintendents' union to analyze the newly proposed funding formula and how it affects each school district in the state.

According to the report, Detroit Lakes is among a handful of school districts that would stand to lose more than it gains.

That's because the governor kept a suggestion by an education finance reform committee that the state take all of the funding designated to schools with Alternative Learning Centers which offer after-school academic programs and roll it back into what they call "basic skills revenue."

The money would then be split up amongst every school district in the state to use as they see fit. That would be a huge blow to the DL district, as it generates about a half a million dollars running these programs for itself and other, smaller towns in the area.

These are programs like targeted services for younger students needing an academic boost, independent learning for the older students and credit recovery for high school seniors needing the last of their credits to graduate.

Froke says Detroit Lakes would likely still continue these programs in Detroit Lakes, but suspects many other schools will not, because tight budgets will force them to address more basic needs.

Equipment, teacher salaries and many, many other programs and items on a schools "wish list" may have to take priority over supplemental programs such as the after-school academic ones.

The roughly half a million dollars Detroit Lakes could lose each year under this plan would be offset somewhat when it collects the extra $52 per student it and every other Minnesota public school would get.

And because the district also holds all-day, everyday kindergarten, the amount it receives for each kindergartener will also go up from the current rate of 62 percent of an average student to 70 percent.

(Younger children are less expensive to educate than older ones, therefore they are counted at a lesser percentage in funding.)

Other area schools that only offer part-time kindergarten will see their rates drop from 62 percent to 55 percent - an incentive for those schools to invest more in early childhood education.

The funds are again shifted around as the budget proposes reducing the amount of money each school gets for handicapped kindergarteners. Funds designated for the gifted and talented programs in schools are also being re-allocated as "unspecified," which means districts no longer have to offer the programs but can use the funds where they need to.

(According to Froke, Detroit Lakes will keep its gifted and talented program for at least four years, as there is money saved up in that fund.)

There are several variables like these as the governor attempts to make things fair and balanced for schools.

So how does it shake out in the end for Detroit Lakes?

When all is said and done, if the governor's budget is passed as it is, Detroit Lakes would come out with new revenue of about $160,000 the first year and $600,000 over two years according to the Ewald report.

That's OK, right? Maybe not.

"People say, 'what's the problem? Your school would be $600,000 to the good,'" said Froke. "But that's one percent. We don't have one percent inflation on our expenses ... ours is two or three (percent). That means we're already in the hole."

So as it stands, the Detroit Lakes School District joins the minority of districts on the losing side of the plan, while others stand to gain substantially. The only thing Froke and other school leaders can do now is cross their fingers and hope that legislators whittle out the change to the extended time revenue for after-school academic programs. "Because no matter how you skin the cat, that's a revenue source that's taken away from us and dispensed to somebody else," said Froke.

The budget is currently in appropriations where members of the education finance committee, headed up by Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth, will go through and attempt to make changes to it before being voted on by the state house and senate.

"Like the governor says, his budget is the first word, not the final word, and I'm aware of the impact this would have on Detroit Lakes and other schools that have alternative learning centers and extended time programs," said Marquart.

"But there's a long ways to go and we're going to look at this very carefully, and we're going to be working to correct that and make sure the program is doing the things we want it to do for districts like Detroit Lakes."

"I think the governor is making an honest effort to change the system that needs to be changed," said Froke. "He's trying to make it better; unfortunately, it's going to take real money to make that happen, and it's money that just isn't there."