Hearing from the schools

Minnesota Education Commissioner visits Marshall to talk education funding

Photo by Deb Gau Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker, at left, met children in early childhood classrooms during a tour of the Marshall Middle School campus Tuesday. As part of her visit, Ricker held a round table discussion on education with area school staff and administrators.

MARSHALL — As she’s traveled to different schools across Minnesota to discuss education funding, state Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said she’s noticed a pattern. Educators aren’t talking about making cuts, she said.

Instead, Ricker said, they’re talking about finding creative ways to meet students’ needs.

“No one in public education is giving up on kids,” she said.

Ricker visited Marshall Middle School on Tuesday for a round table discussion with area school staff, administrators, parents and school board members. In addition, Ricker toured MMS and visited early childhood classrooms at the middle school campus.

The stop in Marshall was part of a statewide listening tour, during Minnesota’s legislative break.

Ricker was also speaking out in support of Gov. Tim Walz’s proposed education budget. The proposal would include $718 million in additional funding for pre-K through 12th grade education over the next two years, and $159 million in additional funding for higher education. A news release from the Minnesota Department of Education said the governor’s budget proposal would mean an additional $2.59 million for Marshall Public Schools over the next two years. That total would include $192,000 to freeze the growth of unfunded special education costs, $56,000 for school safety funding, and $739,000 to continue 72 existing pre-K spaces that would otherwise be lost.

An education budget proposal from the Minnesota state Senate would provide an increase of $505,000 for Marshall Public Schools over the next two years, the Department of Education release said.

“I do worry about the impact of a budget proposal like the Senate’s,” Ricker said. Minnesota educators are ambitious about supporting their students, but the question, she said, is “What’s it going to take to fulfill those ambitions?”

Based on what she’s heard from greater Minnesota schools so far, Ricker said expanding voluntary pre-K seems to be a priority.

Gov. Walz’s budget proposal includes funding to continue voluntary prekindergarten for a total of 4,000 students statewide. Without action, those pre-K spaces are set to expire, Ricker said.

“There is a priority, to make sure we don’t lose what we have,” she said.

Area school administrators said they were concerned about continuing voluntary pre-K funding, to help keep spaces available for area children. But they also hoped voluntary pre-K could be expanded, to include more schools.

Special education was another area where Marshall educators and school administrators said they were working for better outcomes for students. Part of that has meant putting in support for special education teachers, and using teamwork to better meet special education and English Language Learners’ needs, they said.

Cliff Carmody, executive director of Southwest West Central Service Cooperative, spoke about the need for special education facilities funding. He said one of the fastest growing needs in the region is for “Setting 4” education facilities, which work with students with special needs.

Marshall school administrators said support for school safety was also important. MMS and West Side Elementary received state grants last fall for security updates, and one part of an upcoming $29.8 million referendum in the Marshall school district is security improvements at Park Side Elementary, Marshall High School and MATEC.

Teacher recruitment was another concern for area schools. Rich Schneider, superintendent of Yellow Medicine East Schools, said it’s harder for rural schools to find certified teachers.

“We need that flexibility,” to do what’s best for students, he said. Making it easier to hire teachers from outside Minnesota could also help expand the hiring pool — for example, in southwest Minnesota, schools could have candidates from South Dakota or Iowa.

“We have some work to do,” on both recruiting and retaining teachers, Ricker said.

Marshall Superintendent Scott Monson asked Ricker how she saw discussion of education funding moving forward, and if she thought the Legislature would go into a special session this year.

Ricker doubted there would be a special session this spring.

“I am hearing a commitment to May 20,” she said. But part of the work ahead will be to advocate for education, and get schools’ message to state legislators.