Crookston School District Superintendent Chris Bates admits that it's a little weird, but it's a good kind of weird, to be responding to public education legislation coming out of St. Paul in a positive fashion, instead of the "doom and gloom" of the past half-dozen or so years.
"It's like, this is pretty good," Bates told the Times Thursday while driving back from the State Capitol in St. Paul, where he and several other superintendents from the region spent a couple days lobbying legislators on various education-related topics. "We're actually looking at things and saying this isn't too bad. It's a different mindset for sure."
The Minnesota House passed its education bill earlier this week, and the Minnesota Senate passed its bill Thursday evening. A conference committee will have to hammer out the differences and craft a compromise bill that would then go to Gov. Mark Dayton's desk.
The prospect of getting a 2 percent formula funding increase in each year of the next budget biennium, while still not enough to keep up with inflation, is music to Bates' ears. "More would be wonderful, but when you've been living on zero and zero for the past six or eight years, at least we're getting something," he said.
A 2 percent formula funding increase would bring around $110,000 more into the Crookston district each year.
The biggest funding bump will likely come in the form of state money for all-day every day kindergarten (ADEK), a provision included in both bills. Crookston public schools has offered ADEK for several years so the approximately $200,000 that comes to the district each year is without a doubt significant, Bates said. "That helps, without question; it's probably the best thing for us to come out of all of this," he said.
The superintendent said it will be nice to discuss topics with school board members relating to things the district could potentially do with some of the additional funding, instead of another year of talking about how to get by with static funding.
"The board is very keen to being fiscally responsible, because we've had a long run where things have kind of gone backwards, backwards, backwards," Bates said. "A lot of districts, there's hardly any meat left on the bone, so now they're boiling the bone and trying to make soup. There was a lot cut here before I came. We don't have a lot of frills and luxuries, and if this bill goes through, I don't see us adding a lot of frills and luxuries, either. But maybe now we can look ahead and make some strategic plans and decisions instead of just doom and gloom all the time."
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There's a long list of experienced, veteran teachers and staff on this year's retirement list so, in theory, the district's bottom line will be further boosted when less experienced teachers and staff are hired to replace the higher paid retirees.
There will be some savings, Bates said, but it won't be a mountain of cash.
"Some of the staff that are retiring or leaving, I don't think we're going to save money on a food services director or a high school principal; it's not as simple as across the board savings," Bates explained. Retired staff move onto the retired healthcare benefit program, which the district must fund, he said, and, he added, most of the teachers on staff will advance another "step" on the pay and benefit ladder next year, meaning as many as 70 would see a pay increase of $1,500.
"A lot of retirements, strictly speaking of the budget, help, but it's not like we're freeing up all this money. If you could save $10,000 per person, you'd be pleased," Bates said. "And it's not like every new teacher we hire is going to be a first-year teacher. They certainly should be less expensive than the people who are retiring, however. Every bit of savings will help without a doubt."
See Monday’s Times for more of Bates’ thoughts on education-related legislation coming out of St. Paul. Some of it’s good, and some of it’s not so good, he says.