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Hastings Community Education could benefit from funding relief

Hastings Public Schools Health Services Coordinator Mary Ellen Fox re-enacts how the eye test portion of the screening works with Angie McGinnis, the school district's early childhood coordinator. David Clarey / RiverTown Multimedia

Hastings Community Education officials are banking on a Minnesota House bill that would raise reimbursement funding for screening kids before they go to school.

The screenings are done by schools before children enter public school, with the state reimbursing the districts for each screening. Reimbursements have lagged behind costs for years and left districts having to pay from their own budgets to cover the costs.

"For years, we get reimbursed for a screening," said Angie McGinnis, early childhood coordinator with Hastings Community Education. "The problem is that most school districts are in the red with their screening budgets because it's not covering expenses of staff and that type of thing."

The state mandates the roughly one-hour-long screenings as a way to help public school officials understand incoming students and their needs, said Kari Gorr, the director of community education for Hastings Public Schools. Screenings involve measuring a child's vision, hearing and development through activities like stacking blocks or drawing a letter.

Hastings Community Education has seven workers that averaged about 225 screenings a year in the last five years, McGinnis said.

Across the state, schools are losing about $1.65 million per year in the last three-to-five years in the screenings, according to Minnesota Department of Education data.

The costs for those screenings can get higher too if children are too fidgety for the various tests or need to have their hearing or vision checked again, McGinnis said.

The proposed bill raises current reimbursement funding for each age group.

Currently, the state reimburses $75 for 3-year-old children, $50 for 4 year olds, $40 for 5-6 year olds and $38 for kids screened within 30 days after enrolling. The bill would raise the 3-year-old child rate to $94 and the others would all receive incremental bumps as well.

The difference in funding stems from the extra time needed to screen younger kids, according to the Department of Education.

"We like them to be screened at 3 (years old) so that if there are developmental concerns we can address them," McGinnis said.

According to Department of Education data, the funding may not cover the entire deficit. But any increase is still a welcome sight, McGinnis said.

Rep. Julie Sandstede, DFL-Hibbing, authored the bill and it has a companion piece of legislation in the Senate, with Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, one of the co-authors on it. But that's unlikely to receive a committee hearing before the deadline in about two weeks, said Danna Elling Schultz, a DFL researcher.

The house bill though has better prospects. It received a hearing in February and was referred to the state's Ways and Means tax-writing committee.

On Monday, the House DFL released its budget targets and earmarked over $20 billion in education, a $900 million increase from February's target, towards education, boding well for the bills prospects, Schultz said.

"The education budget target in the house was the highest I've ever seen," she said. "If you're looking to have various things funded, that's a very good sign."

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