In anticipation of the 2013 Legislative Session, which began Jan. 8, members of the Anoka-Hennepin School Board anddistrict leadership met with local legislators to review district priorities. The largest school district in the state, Anoka-Hennepin has a legislative delegation of 20 members.
Superintendent Dennis Carlson provided an overview of the district. Anoka-Hennepin encompasses all or parts of 13 communities; 78 percent of the students live in Anoka County while the other 22 percent live in Hennepin County. Anoka-Hennepin has both the lowest per capita income in the seven-county metropolitan area as well as the lowest number of residents who earned four-year college degrees.
Anoka-Hennepin is experiencing declining enrollment, but increasing diversity and poverty. Since 2001, the percent of students of color has increased from 10 percent to 22 percent. The percent of students living in poverty has increased from 16 percent in 2001 to 35 percent in 2012.
Carlson also reviewed the district’s finances. The district had to make some hard decisions to remain solvent, including cutting $25 million from its budget over a two-year period (2009 to 2011), and closing eight schools in 2010 and changing the attendance area boundaries for 2,300 students. Anoka-Hennepin is below the state average in administration costs and above the state average in spending for per pupil expenditures in regular instruction, career and technical education, and special education.
Even with responsible spending, the district faces financial challenges. Referendum levies now pay for basic educational programs, not “extras” as originally envisioned. Anoka-Hennepin receives less revenue than many districts, especially in compensatory revenue and referendum levy revenue. Anoka-Hennepin is a “property poor” district. As a result, its taxpayers pay more per student for referendum levies, yet receive less.
Anoka-Hennepin has the third largest number of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch costs, a federal indicator of poverty, but receives approximately one-sixth the amount per student of Minneapolis or St. Paul because qualifying students are spread more evenly throughout the district rather than in concentrated in some schools. Anoka-Hennepin receives less compensatory aid per student than communities such as Osseo, Spring Lake Park, Hopkins, and Mounds View.
With the meeting just days after the tragedy in Connecticut, Carlson said the school district has safety and crisis planning in place, but as with any tragedy, district staff will learn from it and adjust its practices accordingly. Carlson spoke about how social media,especially Twitter, takes on a life of its own and this creates a challenge. Carlson provided each member of the legislative delegation a handout with photos of cabinet members and encouraged them to call any leader whenever they have questions or concerns.
Carlson also provided legislators with “Building Futures for Anoka-Hennepin Students.” It illustrates how the district will work to ensure students are career and/or college ready by the time they graduate from an Anoka-Hennepin school. It begins with strong early childhood education programs and directs students to the ultimate goal of graduating from an Anoka-Hennepin high school with having earned up to two years of collegecredits. This not only helps student shorten their time in college, but also saves students and their families thousands of dollars.
“We are trying to align everything we do,” Carlson said. “With our limited resources we cannot afford anything less than a sharp focus on what we are trying to achieve.”
Carlson was asked about the achievement gap. He said the district has one of the lowest in the state but that doesn’t mean the district cannot do better.
Michelle Vargas, the district’s chief financial officer, provided a deeper look at district finances. She reviewed the district’s revenue, expenditures and fund balance. Carlson added to Vargas’s report and said that if expenses increase 2 percent, the school district needs an additional $12 million of new money every year or cuts need to be made.
School Board Chairman Tom Heidemann reported on the governor’s Education Finance Working Group report. There is a concern that funding increases aren’t really increases and if enacted, the proposal could drop Anoka-Hennepin below metropolitan and state averages for funding. While Anoka-Hennepin educates about 4.5 percent of the state’s students, it receives about 3 percent of the state’s general funding for education; that means that funding is going elsewhere. Heidmann said the report ignores that Anoka-Hennepin knows what it needs to do to move students forward. Heidemann said Anoka-Hennepin does not support the proposal.
Rep. Jerry Newton asked who comes out ahead under the working group proposal. Vargas said charter schools and school districts with high concentration of poverty, such as St. Paul and Osseo. Anoka-Hennepin could lose programs such as credit recovery and targeted after-school services that help students academically and socially.
Heidemann said the legislative platform is one page and asks for two things: adequate funding in the areas of basiceducation and compensatory education revenue; and innovation and investment, especially in the area of early learning. While Anoka-Hennepin makes wise use of the dollars it receives, the district still faces challenges and his high expectations.
“We want all our graduates to be career ready or college bound,” Heidemann said.