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School leaders ask lawmakers for special education, mental health investments

Free Press - 2/4/2020

Feb. 4--MANKATO -- Special education, mental health services and what to do with a budget surplus dominated a conversation between Mankato Area Public Schools leaders and state lawmakers Monday.

Mankato school officials presented a wish list of legislative priorities and heard from four lawmakers what they will be focusing on during the Legislative session that gets underway next week.

Supt. Paul Peterson and Director of Student Services Scott Hare highlighted four of the requests on the district's annual list legislative priorities.

Two of the requests involve special education. State and federal funding is not keeping up with special education costs, Hare said, requiring the district to take $7 million annually from other funds to close the gap. Additional state funding to reduce that gap is a top district desire.

State legislators also could help by reducing state special education paperwork mandates that are more stringent than federal requirements, Hare said. That would reduce districts' costs while freeing up special education teachers to focus on their students.

Peterson told the lawmakers schools are responding to an increasing number of students dealing with mental health challenges. Districts need more funding to address those needs, Peterson said, and the funding should be flexible to allow schools to meet students' unique needs.

The state also could support young people's mental health by expanding government-funded medical insurance coverage to include intensive outpatient services, the school administrators said. Some Mankato students are being referred to services but cannot access them because they are not covered by insurance.

Peterson acknowledged the 2020 session would traditionally be focused on a bonding bill, but he asked if a projected state budget surplus would lead lawmakers to look at other new spending.

Area legislators expressed support for education, but cautioned that there is a lot of proposals competing for the surplus dollars.

Rep. Jack Considine, DFL-Mankato, said the surplus dollars should be used on for transportation projects.

"You can't put it toward operational costs because next year we may not have it," he said.

Considine said increasing compensation for personal care attendants will continue to be a priority for him this session.

Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, and Rep. Jeremy Munson, R-Lake Crystal, both said increasing fiscal efficiency within the Department of Human Services is among their top objectives. Frentz said he'll also be focusing on getting local requests included in the bonding bill. Munson said he'll be working to reduce taxes.

Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter said his goals for the session include expansion of Highway 14 between Nicollet and New Ulm.

"Education is critical but we also have to make sure our students get safely to school," he said.

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