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Grand Meadow school bus will extend into Southland district

By Elliot Mann

Post-Bulletin, Austin MN

DEXTER — There’s going to be a new school bus rolling soon through the Southland school district.

But instead of returning to Adams or Rose Creek, the yellow bus will return to Grand Meadow, marking the latest wrinkle in the state’s open enrollment law, which allows students to attend school in other districts of their choosing.

It starts in Grand Meadow, where Superintendent Joe Brown announced "Project +25," an initiative to boost enrollment of the small school district to 400, from 375 students.

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If Brown is successful, the project could bring in more than $128,000. If all the students were high-schoolers, the added revenue could total $166,525.

In a district like Grand Meadow, where the general fund budget is $3.7 million, that represents almost 4 percent of the district’s finances.

"School funding is based almost exclusively on the number of students you have," Brown said. "That’s how you get paid."

More than 30,000 Minnesota students participate in open enrollment. The school-choice law first hit Minnesota in 1988 and allows students to join any public school. Likewise, the state aid for those students follows them to the new school district. Families typically need to provide transportation, and no tuition is charged.

Bus stop

Grand Meadow also announced plans for a fourth bus route next year, which will travel into the Southland school district. Since Grand Meadow already owns the extra bus, the route would cost about $10,000 to $12,000.

If at least four students take that bus, it’s a profit for the district, Brown said.

While the move could be positive for Grand Meadow, it comes at the expense of Southland public schools, which enrolls 550 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

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Southland Superintendent Steve Sallee said he isn’t overly concerned about another school actively going into his district’s territory, yet it’s not a move he would personally endorse.

"The Southland school district does not believe in that sort of thing," said Sallee, who will be the superintendent of both Southland and LeRoy-Ostrander schools next year. "It’s not a real popular thing in the Southland district, and we are watching it very closely."

Kingsland school district Superintendent Darrin Strosahl agreed.

"We should all being working cooperatively together," said Strosahl, whose district includes Spring Valley and Wykoff in Fillmore County. "It shouldn’t be a battle of what line you’re on or what side of the line you’re on."

Brown, who’s married to state Rep. Robin Brown, DFL-Austin, doesn’t view competition negatively.

As an Iowa legislator in the 1980s, he pushed for school choice options. He also has several school co-ops set up with other local districts.

"I’ve always felt public schools will get better if they are forced to compete," Brown said. "I’m willing to compete with any school in the region."

Students = dollars

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It’s a dirty little secret among education circles — students are dollar signs.

With few ways to generate revenue, some school districts in southeast Minnesota are looking at how they can attract students from neighboring districts, thereby receiving a bump in highly sought-after state funding.

Schools receive money from the state based on enrollment, with one high school student this year equaling $6,660. Kindergarten students equal $3,135.

If a public school district can attract more students than it loses, it receives a spike in state funding. For example, the Rochester school district lost a net of 608 students last year, according to district figures. That accounts for more than $3 million, or about 2 percent of the district’s entire budget, using baseline state funding numbers.

For more information, go to Postbulletin.com/weblinks.

Southland http://www.isd500.k12.mn.us/

Grand Meadow http://www.gm.k12.mn.us/se3bin/clientschool.cgi?schoolname=school486

Minnesota Department of Education open enrollment http://education.state.mn.us/MDE/Academic_Excellence/School_Choice/Public_School_Choice/Open_Enrollment/index.html

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