The Legislature has typically put most new education spending into the per-pupil formula. That's the basic amount that schools get for each student.
But this year, the biggest chunk of new education spending would go to schools to educate students with physical and mental disabilities. That means the Minneapolis school district, where one in six students qualifies for special education services, would get more money than nearly every other district.
"Yes, because Minneapolis has a high number of special ed students, we benefit," said Peggy Ingison, the district's chief financial officer. "But we have had all of these higher costs that we've had to absorb."
Ingison said federal law requires the district to provide special education services, yet the state and federal governments haven't paid the full cost of those programs. So Minneapolis and other districts have used money from other parts of their budgets to cover those costs.
The special ed money in the education bill would give Minneapolis an additional $382 next year for every student, not just those in special ed. That's more than all but a handful of districts, and it makes some rural legislators see red.
"Well, where'd the money go? Oh, Minneapolis and St. Paul," said House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall. "Big surprise, considering who the two top leaders are."
“If you have a situation where costs are increasing, and the reimbursements from the state don't, that's how you dig yourself into a hole. It's not a hole you can ignore. You get sued.”Lobbyist Jim Grathwol
Seifert said his district isn't a big winner in the education bill. Marshall would get an extra $163 per student in special education funding. That's less than the state average of a couple hundred dollars per student.
Some rural districts would get a special ed increase of less than $100 per student, while St. Paul would get an additional $287 per student and St. Cloud would get $314 more per student. Seifert notes that the top DFL legislative leaders happen to live in Minneapolis and St. Cloud.
Assistant Senate Majority Leader Tarryl Clark, DFL-St. Cloud, said the reason her district would get a large increase is not because she helped negotiate the bill, but because nearly one in five St. Cloud students qualifies for special education services.
"There's some who are saying, 'Oh, this is totally unfair," said Clark. "The reality is, it's been totally unfair that the districts have been having to pay for these costs that we're requiring them to do, that the federal government is requiring them to do, without the state's share of the cost."
During the state's budget crisis four years ago, the Legislature capped the state's portion of special education funding. And the gap between the rising cost of special ed and state funding for those programs has been widening since then.
"I was one of the squawkers back in 2003," said Minneapolis school district lobbyist Jim Grathwol.
Grathwol said it was clear at the time that capping state spending on a mandated program would create budget problems for school districts.
"Everyone saw the handwriting on the wall, that if you have a situation where costs are increasing, and the reimbursements from the state don't, that's how you dig yourself into a hole," Grathwol said. "And in this case, it's not a hole you can ignore. You get sued. It's a civil right."
A coalition of 16 education groups made special education their top legislative priority this session. One of those groups is the Minnesota Rural Education Association. Lobbyist Vernae Hasbargen said special education costs are a growing concern for rural districts too, not just cities like Minneapolis and regional centers like St. Cloud.
"I think the average number of special ed students in this state is pretty average district to district," said Hasbargen. "Except if you should have a catastrophic child that happens to born in your community, and you're a really small district, then your special ed costs inflate dramatically because there aren't a lot of students to spread them over."
A handful of rural districts do get a big special ed funding boost under the bill, on the order of more than $400 per student. They include Cass Lake, Onamia, and Pine Point, with fewer than 70 students.