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Rural legislators target urban school funds
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Sixth grade students at Museum Magnet School in St. Paul arrange tables in the room where they'll host a poetry reading. (MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)
Minneapolis and St. Paul school district officials are blasting legislation that would take away some of the state funding they get for keeping their schools racially balanced. The Minnesota House recently approved the measure, which would spread the money statewide. The state's large urban districts have long relied on the extra money to comply with desegregation laws. But some rural legislators say their schools have been unfairly short-changed.

St. Paul, Minn. — The sixth grade students arranging tables for a poetry reading mirror the overall racial makeup of the Museum Magnet School in St. Paul: one third African American, one third Asian and one third caucasian. The 13-year-old school is a cooperative venture with the Science Museum of Minnesota, and attracts students from throughout the city. Principal Gloria Kumagai says there is a waiting list to get in.

"Having a multi-cultural mix in the school is a great big advantage, so that kids learn about differences and how to appreciate them, as well as similarities among the different groups," Kumagai said. "And they learn to work together to solve problems."

The St. Paul school district relies on magnet schools and voluntary programs with neighboring suburban districts to meet state and federal requirements for school desegregation. The district also relies on significant financial help from the state, about $15 million annually.

But legislation passed in the Minnesota House would slash the amount of state integration aid going to St. Paul, Minneapolis and several large school systems. The money would instead be shared statewide among all 341 school districts. Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, pushed the amendment, which passed 85 to 44. "The concept that troubles me in general is just the lopsided nature of how all these formulas just happen to be skewed against my districts and in favor of the inner city metro districts," Seifert said.

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Image Rep. Marty Seifert

State integration money is broadly intended to increase learning opportunities and reduce the learning gap between students living in high concentrations of poverty and their peers. Under Seifert's plan, St. Paul would lose $10.5 million. Minneapolis would take a $10 million hit, and Duluth would lose nearly $627,000. The other districts facing reductions are Columbia Heights, Fridley, Richfield and St. Anthony-New Brighton. All other school districts would see increases. It would mean an extra $29 dollars per student in most districts.

Superintendent Pat Harvey says the cut would be devastating to St. Paul schools.

"What this will do is to eliminate the ability of a large number of schools to deliver the instructional promises that they have given to their kids and families," Harvey said.

David Jennings, interim superintendent in the Minneapolis school district, says the funding changes are outrageous. Minneapolis schools operated for more than a decade under a court-ordered desegregation plan. Jennings says the potential loss of funding would not reduce the district's legal and moral obligations.

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Image Pat Harvey

"We'd have larger class sizes and less opportunities for all students, not just students of color," Jennings said. "This money is embedded in our program, period, and the there's no way to make targeted cuts and it would be immoral to do so. So, what will happen is cuts that affect everybody."

Jennings is a former Republican Speaker of the House, who once served as Marty Seifert's campaign manager. He calls the amendment a "target of opportunity" motivated by election year politics.

Seifert says he's simply trying to help the schools in his southwestern Minnesota legislative district. Under his proposed calculation, the Marshall school district would gain $76,000. Marshall Superintendent Tom Tapper says the district currently receives no integration aid. But Tapper is not supportive of Seifert's proposal.

"Any dollars that might be additional would always be welcomed," Tapper said. "But I would be concerned about receiving any additional dollars at the expense of another school district."

The Minnesota Rural Education Association also opposes the change. The Senate defeated a similar amendment last week, which lessens the possibility of the issue surviving this year.

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