As school districts across the state begin preparing for the 2021-2022 school year budget, issues affecting schools this year will have a major impact.

On March 18, 2020, every public and charter school in the state of Minnesota was shut down by Gov. Tim Walz. Two weeks later districts were required to offer online learning. To say the least, with just two weeks to prepare, the online learning offered fell short in the eyes of educators and parents.

With the lackluster distance learning offered in the spring, schools were fighting an uphill battle to convince parents their distance learning option in the fall would be better and more comprehensive.

In August, Minnesota Department of Education assistant commissioner Daron Korte suggested parents talk to administrators at their child's school before deciding to pull them out or enrolling them in an online school or choosing homeschool.

"We just encourage parents to make sure they're having conversations with their local school districts before making these decisions because each child is unique and has individual needs," Korte said in an interview with the News Tribune in August. "With distance learning through the district, you're still at home with your students, working through the curriculum and education, but you have all kinds of resources that come along with being a public school student."

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Walz even encouraged parents over the summer to choose distance learning through a school district before choosing to leave the district.

But no matter the reason, many parents chose homeschooling over distance learning through their child’s district. Carlton County school superintendents told the News Tribune their homeschooling numbers are definitely up from the previous year. Cloquet Public School superintendent Michael Cary said the district had about 20 students signed up for homeschooling at the start of the year that had never homeschooled before.

“When we asked the families about homeschooling, their answers were predominantly about concerns surrounding COVID-19,” Cary said.

Combined, Carlton County schools are down about 150 students, according to the most recent average daily membership estimates on the MDE data center.

Average daily membership is the portion of the year a student is enrolled in a district. For example, if a student spends the first semester at one district and then transfers to another district for the second semester, then each district could claim that student as 0.5 on its average daily membership.

Average daily memberships affect funding

The average daily membership is used to determine about 60% of a school district’s funding for the current school year. One of the largest funding source it affects is the basic revenue, money received through the state of Minnesota.

The basic revenue for a district is calculated like this: The total average daily membership for grades seven through 12 is multiplied by 1.20 and then added to the remaining average daily membership to give a district its adjusted pupil unit.

The adjusted pupil unit is multiplied by the formula allowance set by the state Legislature. For the 2021-2022 school year, the formula allowance is $6,567.

A district that has an average daily membership of 500 for grades seven through 12 and 500 for the remaining grades, the district would receive more than $7.2 million in basic revenue.

The state does provide enrollment loss revenue to help bridge the funding gap between years, but it does provide 28% of the formula allowance per average daily membership lost. Walz has budgeted $25 million in his latest budget proposal, which, according to MDE, was based on the enrollment loss revenue percentage increasing to about 48%.

Barnum Public Schools superintendent Mike McNulty said his district was already expecting their average daily memberships to be down by 10 to 15 due to the number of seniors who graduated last year being greater than the number of incoming kindergarten students. As of January, McNulty said Barnum is currently down about 27 and is expecting a loss of about $100,000 in funding.

“Our goal is to hold steady this year, though I don’t know how that will happen,” McNulty said. “We just don’t want to be in a situation where we have to make reductions and then the government comes up with some more money for us and we can bring people or things back. So we want to avoid that situation.”

Because average daily memberships for this year will be used to determine funding for the rest of the school year many school districts have made average daily membership part of their legislative platform. School districts are lobbying the state to use their average daily membership from the 2019-2020 school year to determine this year’s funding because they believe once the pandemic starts winding down and vaccines have been more widely distributed, schools will see their enrollment numbers return to normal.

“In Carlton County, we always have meetings together to talk about the legislative issues, and we go together on the platforms because we have a lot of commonalities, especially this year,” McNulty said.

Using the previous school year's average daily memberships is being talked about heavily throughout the state because “pretty much every single district is getting hit with the same thing," he said.

According to MDE, average daily memberships are down across the state. Collectively, Carlton County schools are looking at nearly $1 million in revenue loss.

“We are really concerned about (average daily memberships) dropping off because it could be as much as a $200,000 swing in funding, which highly would impact our small district,” Wrenshall Public Schools superintendent Kim Belcastro said.

If more funding is not made available to districts or they do not get approval to use the 2019-2020 school year average daily memberships, many districts could face budget cuts or adjustments next year.