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Minnesota State Senators Clash Over P-Tech Funding

Two of Rochester's state senators, Liz Boldon and Carla Nelson, are at odds over how to fund a program that allows students to earn a high school diploma and an associate degree as information technologists or LPNs.

illustration of people with stack of books and professional certification
(TNS) — A dispute broke out between two of Rochester's state senators, Liz Boldon and Carla Nelson, this week about how to preserve and fund a program that prepares Rochester Public Schools students to become licensed practical nurses and information technologists.

Called P-TECH, the program allows students to earn a high school diploma and a two-year associate degree linked to the two high-demand fields. The program has been popular, adding students every year since it started three years ago and is projected to peak at 165 students next year.

P-TECH is a national model that was started 20 years ago by IBM in New York. There are more than 200 such programs across the country.

"The basic idea is that kids start studying in career fields while they're in high school," said Rochester Superintendent Kent Pekel. "It's a model that combines high school and higher ed. But the key thing is that it provides a pathway to a practical nursing license or an associate's degree in Information Technology."

Both Nelson, a Republican, and Boldon, a DFLer, support the program, but their differences over how to fund it and at what level with state dollars spilled out into the open earlier this week. That's when Nelson publicly criticized Boldon for proposing to slash funding for the ground-breaking program.

"We should not be undercutting a program doing a phenomenal job before the first class of students even graduates," Nelson said in a press statement.

Boldon's proposal would ratchet down state appropriations for the Rochester program from $791,000 to $500,000 in 2025, to $250,000 in 2026, then drop to $50,000 in 2027 and beyond.

Nelson offered an amendment on the Senate floor earlier this week to restore the program's previous funding levels. But that effort was thwarted when nearly all DFLers voted against the motion. Nelson's side says that Boldon originally voted "no," then voted "yes" to Nelson's amendment before the vote board was closed.

A Boldon aide said Boldon changed her vote to keep both sides talking.

"Conversations about P-TECH funding are still ongoing," Boldon said.

Rochester's is the only state-funded P-TECH program — a benefit derived from when Nelson held the gavel as chair of the K-12 finance committee. District officials say Nelson's original vision had been to fund nine P-TECHs across the state, but the funding wasn't there at the time. Nelson is no longer on the K-12 committee.

"She was only able to secure funding for one, and of course, Rochester was ready to go. So Rochester was named in the legislation," Pekel said.

But some legislator or department or someone thought it was unfair or wrong that such a public investment should go to only "one school district in one corner of the state." So in the last session, a small but significant change was made to a bill that pulled the financial rug out from Rochester's P-TECH program.

Instead of being a sole beneficiary of state dollars, the language authorized a competitive grant process for P-TECH funding for districts. It would include but not be limited to Rochester. It meant that funding for the Rochester program, with no notice, had dropped like a cliff. It got no funding for P-TECH this year. One aide suggested the directive came from the Minnesota Department of Education. But it is not clear who or what department inserted the language.

"Because we had no advance notice of this change, we have not identified other potential sources of funding to support P-TECH during the 2023-24 school year," Pekel wrote in an August 2023 email to the P-TECH steering committee, Rochester School Board and Rochester legislative delegation.

To keep the program going this year, Pekel said, Rochester received authorization from the education department to use "carryover funding" from previous years to keep the program going.

"We have funded the whole program this year on carryover dollars," Pekel said. "We have had no funding. Like the current state is zero — like we're dead in the water."

In that context, instead of going cold turkey, Boldon's bill aimed at creating a multi-year transition period, a bridge, so RPS officials could find alternative sources of funding.

"It's not just to have a cliff, but more of a step down," said Jack Dudley, a legislative aide to Boldon.

So where would the dollars come from to keep P-TECH viable? Pekel said he will propose to the school board next Tuesday holding a referendum. Among the different strategies he and the board will explore for funding P-TECH will be dollars from a passed referendum.

Nelson argues that it was always understood that Rochester's share of funding would continue, no matter how widespread the program became statewide. But the state funding in St. Paul always happens in two-year cycles, and it's not clear why Nelson believed future legislators would be bound by such an intention.

"It is wonderful that Rochester's incredible success has put Minnesota in a position to expand this program to new communities, but that absolutely should not jeopardize Rochester's funding," Nelson said.

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