Editorial: Voting for education

  • Article by: EDITORIAL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 10, 2011 - 7:15 PM

Despite referendum success, school finance reform is needed.

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Minnesota voters approved 79 percent of the 114 school levy requests on the ballot this year, demonstrating strong support for education despite difficult economic times.

In districts where voters either continued an existing tax or chose to raise taxes, school programs will be maintained, staff will be retained, and technology enhancements or building projects will proceed.

Nevertheless, holding local referendums is not the best way to fund education basics. Ideally, the state would adequately fund K-12 and support education reforms and efficiencies that would reduce the need for local votes.

It continues to be unfair that schools are the only unit of local government that repeatedly has to go to voters to shore up operating budgets.

Putting funding for basic school needs on the ballot also creates a fairness issue. Districts with less property tax wealth or those that can't pass referendums likely have fewer dollars to work with.

That's unacceptable when the state Constitution promises adequate education for all students.

As long as referendums are needed, however, school leaders should have the flexibility to decide when to go to voters.

Last week, Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said he'll propose legislation that would require school boards to conduct levy referendums only in even-numbered election years, when voter turnout tends to be larger.

There's no reason for the Legislature to dictate when referendums are held, and it is our hope that Garofalo's proposed bill will fail.

Citizens can see what happens when state school funding fails to keep pace with inflation. Between 2003 and 2011, per-pupil funding increased by 11 percent but failed to keep up with inflation.

That's resulted in budget-shaving moves such as four-day weeks, cutbacks in course offerings, increased class sizes and higher fees for extracurriculars. Declining purchasing power has forced many districts to ask for higher property taxes, deeper program cuts or both.

And the Legislature's decision to delay or shift payments to help balance the state budget has created financial challenges. When state payments aren't made on time, some districts are forced to either draw down reserves or borrow.

The bottom line is that Minnesota needs to adjust its school funding formula.

As Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, explains: "We need a systemic change to how schools are funded so that the need for levy elections won't exist at the level [it exists] today.''

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