Editorial: The pass-along pain from school cuts

  • Article by: EDITORIAL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 12, 2011 - 9:02 PM

State should step up to reduce the need for voters to fund basics.


On the Minnesota House floor in June, Rep. Pat Garofalo talked with GOP House Majority Leader Matt Dean between bills.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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In November, voters in just more than a third of Minnesota's 340 school districts will have school levies on their ballots. They'll be asked either to extend a previously approved tax or to raise property taxes to help local schools.

Traditionally, districts have used referendums to seek funds for buildings, special projects or other educational "extras.'' That's no longer the case.

A majority of the levies on ballots this fall would fund basics such as materials, books, technology and even teachers -- in other words, essential educational assets whose costs used to be covered by the state.

The growing dependence of schools on voter-approved dollars for basics demonstrates an ongoing problem in Minnesota.

According to a Minnesota Association of School Boards survey, so far 133 of the state's school districts plan to present voters with referendums this fall.

Of that total, 121 are for operating levies, and about 75 percent are for renewals. Districts have until Sept. 16 to make final decisions on levy elections.

When inflation is taken into account, school funding from the state has declined by double digits over the past eight years, and schools increasingly turn to voters to make up the difference, according to the state's Education Finance Working Group, an advisory group established by the Department of Education.

At the same time, the poor economy has made such votes more difficult to win. Six years ago, taxpayers supported 80 percent of school ballot questions; last year, 23 percent were approved.

It's wrong that education is the only area of state government that's directly vulnerable to antitax sentiment. A property owner's tax bill also includes, for example, the portions decided by elected officials in cities and counties.

With the future of our state's workforce at stake, Minnesota schools shouldn't have to regularly put basic educational needs to a popular vote because of shortsighted state funding cuts or shifts.

It's even more galling that some GOP lawmakers -- including Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, the chairman of the House Education Finance Committee -- have pledged to campaign against referendums, according to Minnesota Public Radio.

By law, school leaders can ask for additional taxes in three- to 10-year increments. When those terms are about to expire, voters must either approve them again, or the districts lose the revenue.

To address that problem, at a minimum the Legislature should allow districts to convert some portion of those short-term levies into permanent ones. That would reduce the need to return to voters for operating support.

Equity also suffers as schools increase their reliance on referendums. More affluent areas and those rich with commercial property are more likely to approve levies.

But what about those less fortunate children who live in less economically healthy communities where residents are more likely to say no to even the most basic funding requests if it means higher taxes?

In public education, children shouldn't be deprived of opportunities simply because they live in the wrong zip codes.

Consider North Branch, where school officials have cut $14 million from the district's budget in eight years. As a result, officials have resorted to four-day school weeks, higher teacher-to-student ratios and accepting more advertising in schools, including on lockers and in school mailings.

The 3,500-student district will go to its voters for the eighth time this fall after seven failed requests.

To put schools on more stable financial ground, state policymakers need to develop a more reliable funding formula for schools -- one more protected from the ups and downs of the state's economy.

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    "We don't see an end in sight to the difficult budget cuts. ... It makes it extraordinarily difficult to look to the future and believe that things are going to improve.''

    DEB HENTON, school superintendent in North Branch, where voters have rejected school levies seven times.

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