Public school advocates press Minn. lawmakers for special ed, mental health support

Education leaders rallied at the Minnesota State Capitol on Monday. (FOX 9)

School district officials pressured Minnesota lawmakers Monday to approve more funding to help with the increasing costs for special education services and mental health support, but they face a Legislature divided over how much to spend.

In late April, the DFL-led House passed $3.5 billion in extra K-12 education funding over the next three years. One day later, the Republican-controlled Senate approved its own plan that spends $32 million over the same period, roughly 1 percent of the House's proposal. That sets up time-sensitive negotiations starting this week, with the session scheduled to end May 23.

Advocates for special education services wore red -- to create a sense of urgency, they said -- as they lobbied in the Capitol on Monday afternoon. A $822 million gap -- known as the special education cross-subsidy -- exists this school year between the cost of services that districts are legally required to provide and the state funding they receive.

"As we look at it, we’re taking money away from other areas of the district to make sure we provide these services," St. Paul Superintendent Joe Gothard told reporters. The cross-subsidy in St. Paul is $51 million, he estimated.

School administrators said wealthier districts pay for special education services through property taxes, sometimes by asking voters for an increase. But rural districts where property values are lower do not have that option, they said.

The House's education bill includes $422 million next year from the state's projected budget surplus to reduce the funding gap in special education services. The Senate's proposal does not include an increase.

The two sides are also far apart on mental health support. The House has proposed spending tens of millions of dollars across a handful of mental health programs, while the Senate has not included any of them.

During a House-Senate negotiating meeting Monday, Intermediate District 287 Superintendent Sandy Lewandowski urged lawmakers to reach a deal. In February, a student was killed in a shooting outside of a District 287 school in Richfield. 

"I hope no other Minnesota school district has a similar tragedy, but it is my belief we are a canary in the coal mine," Lewandowski said, listing off several violent incidents caused by students that have led staff to quit. "If we do not provide children with the trauma response and mental health services they so desperately need, there will be more tragic outcomes."

Senate Republicans have reserved much of the remaining $7 billion in projected budget surplus for two income tax cuts.

Monday, Senate Education Committee Chairman Roger Chamberlain said GOP lawmakers were open to additional mental health support. Social media and Gov. Tim Walz's decision to close schools during the COVID-19 pandemic have contributed to mental health issues, he said.

"Educators have told me personally and in groups that social media, the screens, are probably the biggest problems they face in their classrooms and the distractions they cause," said Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes. On school shutdowns during the pandemic, he said: "That’s an unforced error on the schools and the kids, and they’ve had to deal with that."

With the session's end nearing, Walz and legislative leaders started closed-door negotiations Monday morning.

Leaving one of the meetings, Walz said education funding and taxes have become linked and would require a "holistic" deal.

Walz has expressed openness to the GOP's proposals cutting income taxes and exempting Social Security income from state taxes. But the first-term DFL governor has said any changes must not benefit wealthier Minnesotans.

"We’re certainly not going to negotiate a position away where we give tax cuts away to the wealthiest Minnesotans and don’t fund education, and I would argue that the Republicans are probably thinking we’re not going to give them money for education unless we can get something in tax cuts," Walz said.