As another school year begins, Sleepy Eye Public School (SEPS) students are adjusting to new routines, new schools and new teachers. Behind the scenes, administrators like SEPS Superintendent John Cselovszki, are feeling a sense of accomplishment since the legislative session in May extended extra funding across the board.
Like many school districts across Minnesota, Sleepy Eye Public Schools has seen a declining trend in student enrollment, which plays a critical role as the majority of funding is directly tied to the number of students the district serves. Simply put, a decline in enrollment means a decline in funding.
However, this past legislative session, coined the “educational legislative session” by Cselovszki, has taken the struggles of rural districts like Sleepy Eye into account and increased Minnesota education funding across the board.
From three years ago, the Sleepy Eye School District is down nearly 50 students. A decline, Cselovszki said, that equates to more money lost than what a referendum would have made up for. Without an operating levy and increasing costs, the district has been forced to make some difficult cuts in the past several years.
“We have a fund balance so we’ve done a good job, but we’ve still had to make cuts,” Cselovszki said.
Board authority levy
Lawmakers’ two-year $300 per pupil board authority tax bill prohibits school districts from asking voters to approve new tax levies unless their district has no existing levies on the books, has a negative fund balance, or if board members voted before June 30 to put a tax request before voters.
For Sleepy Eye, one of the districts in Minnesota unable to pass a voter-approved referendum, this board authority allows the district to set a levy of $300 per pupil, but that’s the cap.
“It’s important to understand that this referendum is heavily equalized,” Cselovszki said. “It will generate $180,000 in revenue for the district, but out of that amount $95,000 is in state aid. The remaining $85,000 is the local levy portion. This is going to balance out our loss of students and allow us to bring back some of the pieces that we’ve had to cut.”
Cuts that were previously made that have been brought back include increasing the music program back to full-time, adding a full-time guidance counselor and adding various elective courses that the board of education felt were important to students’ success.
He went on to explain that the board has chosen not to take a vote to the ballot box this year due to the legislative changes made in education funding and the board’s authority to levy $300 per pupil.
Page 2 of 2 -
“We want to make sure we are in a good position, but at the same time we don’t want to burden our taxpayers,” Cselovszki said while noting that this revenue will not be payable until 2014.
All day kindergarten
About two-thirds of the state’s school districts currently offer all-day kindergarten, but many of them charge for it. Under this new law, all-day kindergarten programs across the state will be free of charge.
The new law will benefit districts like Sleepy Eye that are already providing all-day kindergarten at no charge to parents. State funding for the program will free up money in the general fund budget that has been used to support the program.
Cselovszki stressed that this program has not been made a state mandate, but there are certain requirements that qualify districts for the funding. Requirements, according to Cselovszki, that the district has already met. The program has to be free, has to be at least 850 hours of instruction during the school year and has to be available to all families who wish to enroll their children in all-day kindergarten.
Since SEPS falls within the qualifying state guidelines, the district will maintain the same program that it has for several years. Kindergartners began school Aug. 23 and will attend school three days a week until the end of December when they begin attending school every day until the end of the year.
“This structure works for our diverse population,” Cselovszki explained. “Our district has unique, diverse needs and this legislation allows us the flexibility to do what works best for our district while still receiving the funding.
Cselovszki added the program will stay in place until the law changes, but the current structure of the program will not change unless the state mandates it. The only requirements the state has set forth as far as the structure of all day kindergarten funding is that students must receive a minimum of 850 hours of instruction throughout the year.
“Our kindergarten students are getting over 850 hours of instruction over the course of the school year and changing the structure of the program isn’t going to be beneficial,” Cselovszki said. “Our current structure is balanced and working.”
Currently this year there are 42 kindergartners enrolled in two sections at SEPS. They began their first day on Aug. 23.