Legislation aimed at reducing bullying in schools is almost certain to be enacted this year. Bills in the House and Senate have advanced through all the requisite policy committees and enjoy broad support from the DFL legislative majorities.
But it’s still not clear exactly how the costs of the legislation will be covered. Those include expenses incurred by the state, most notably the establishment of a “school climate center” by the Minnesota Department of Education. But they also include costs that are likely to be incurred by local school districts tasked with fulfilling the requirements in the legislation.
Those mandates include creating a policy to prevent bullying, providing training to staff, filing an annual report with the state on bullying incidents, and designating a point person to deal with complaints. Local school districts are fearful that they’ll be left to pick up the tab.
“Education funding has been sparse the last decade,” said Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. “School districts continue to be in the vein of cutting or adjusting their budgets. And anything that is added to that plate without having accompanying funding will continue to create more of a challenge for districts to serve children and to provide quality education experiences for them.”
The bill’s backers acknowledge that there will be costs for local school districts and say they intend to provide some state funding to help cover those expenses. Legislators have been debating whether a grant program or additional money in the school aid formula is the best way to address it. The latter method appears to be gaining consensus.
“We recognize that there will be some expense,” said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, the chief author of the bullying bill. “I think it’s being exaggerated in some cases by these school administrators and principals and the like. That’s fine. They’re doing their job. But to do this well, it’s going to take resources. We totally recognize that. So we’re going to try and find those resources around here to help.”
State, local costs uncertain
The exact costs are impossible to determine at this point. That’s because a fiscal note has yet to be issued by the Minnesota Office of Management and Budget. When completed, it will include an assessment of financial implications for local school districts.
The issue of bullying in schools has received heightened legislative attention in recent years in the wake of a series of high-profile incidents across the country. Locally the Anoka-Hennepin School District faced a federal lawsuit alleging that school officials failed to take adequate action to protect students who were being harassed based on their real or perceived sexual orientation. That litigation followed several student suicides in the state’s largest school district that were blamed at least in part on bullying. The lawsuit was settled in March of last year, with the Anoka-Hennepin school board agreeing to a five-year partnership between the school district and the federal government to create procedures to improve the school climate for all students.
In addition, a 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Education determined that Minnesota’s current anti-bullying law, which is just 37 words long, is among the weakest in the country. Dibble argues that an overhaul of that statute is long overdue.
“School districts like Anoka-Hennepin have been left to their own devices and for years and years and years failed kids,” Dibble said. “We’ve seen the consequences of that.”
GOP legislators want limited approach
Republicans have offered their own anti-bullying measures, but they’ve been much less ambitious in scope. For instance, Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, has introduced a bill simply specifying that any school district that implements a model policy created by the Minnesota School Boards Association is in compliance with the state’s anti-bullying mandate. Chamberlain’s proposal has not made any legislative progress.
Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, the minority lead on the Education Policy Committee, agrees with this more limited approach. “There’s always bullying to a certain extent, but that’s part of growing up,” said Erickson, a retired teacher. “My school districts have not talked to me about having a bullying problem ever.”
She’s worried that the more expansive anti-bullying proposals put forth by DFLers could siphon resources from the classroom. “It costs $16 million a day for our teachers to be in the classroom across the state,” Erickson said. “They’re going to spend one day training. So how are they going to pay for that if they’re taking a teacher out of a classroom to train them for a day? That’s going to be a cost that never can be made up.”
But Dibble doesn’t believe Erickson has been sincere in considering the risks that kids face if strong anti-bullying measures aren’t in place. “Sondra Erickson is in a state of full denial that there’s any problem for kids anywhere. I have no patience for her and her opposition,” Dibble said. ”She’s provided nothing productive or constructive to date. It’s just been a wall of opposition.”
Dibble points out that many districts have already taken significant steps to address bullying in recent years. That should mean that many of the costs associated with having a robust policy in place have already been incurred for those districts. “We’re providing billions of dollars to educate our kids, and if kids aren’t going to school in a safe environment where they can achieve and be healthy and grow into a productive adulthood, absolutely the state needs to step in,” Dibble said.
Amoroso acknowledges that many districts have already taken steps to deal with the hot-button issue. But he still believes there will be costs that the state should pay because it’s mandating the changes.
“It’s not necessarily that you need to go out and hire more people,” Amoroso said. “There might be some of that. But you’re adding additional responsibilities, and what does that do to the existing duties of staff? … We’re just concerned that if we’re asked to do some things there be some funding accompanying it.”