'Do you want to fund your schools -- or not?'

  • Article by: NORMAN DRAPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 19, 2008 - 10:39 PM

A proposal to change the way Minnesota schools are funded could surface as a top issue in this fall's legislative elections.

A looming $935 million state budget deficit means prospects that Minnesota schools will get any significant new funding from the Legislature this year have dropped to zilch.

That hasn't stopped DFL legislators from aiming for next year, when they hope to request a massive school funding overhaul that would add from $1 billion to $2 billion a year to K-12 and early childhood education funding. Such a spending boost would be one of the largest in Minnesota history.

Some legislators feel the need for change is so great, and so many schools are in worsening financial shape, that next year could mark a watershed for school funding. They also want to have an education plan framed by the end of the session, so that education can become a big issue when all the House seats are up for grabs this November.

"It's a fact that this will be an election issue," said Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, who chairs the House K-12 Finance Division. "'Do you want to fund your schools -- or not?'"

Such a plan would face big obstacles. Legislators know that such a massive infusion of money would require new revenues. That translates into taxes. Plus, the state's budget deficit is forecast to continue at least into next year, making money scarce.

A push for at least $1 billion

Much of what DFLers are gearing up to propose will be based on the findings of P.S. Minnesota, a think tank made up of numerous education lobbying and public interest groups and aimed at changing the way education is funded.

P.S. Minnesota found a couple of years ago that it would take $1 billion a year more to educate Minnesota's students well enough to ensure that they can meet state and federal education proficiency standards. Inflation and legislators' determination to add early childhood education to the mix raise that figure to between $1 billion and $2 billion.

K-12 education currently costs the state between $6 billion and $7 billion a year and constitutes the single largest state expense.

Plenty of legislators are unwilling to commit to such a big funding initiative.

"I'm not putting a dollar figure on this," said Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, and a member of both Senate education committees. Sen. David Hann, an Eden Prairie Republican and also a member of both education committees, said he needs to see that the money -- especially funding tied up in salary increases for employees -- is being put to good use before signing off on any increases.

"People have to ask, 'Are those costs generating benefits?'" Hann said.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said that he wants to protect schools from budget cuts this year. As for next year, Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said, "we are hopeful that the state's revenue picture will improve and we will work to find ways to continue to wisely invest in our schools."

Changing a complex system

So far, DFLers and Republicans from both the House and Senate have been working together to study ways to reform a school finance system that has grown to rely heavily on property tax increases and myriad state funding sources. What emerges in terms of an overall bill is uncertain. But many DFLers want lots of new money for schools next year.

"We need new sources of income for schools; that's the bottom line," said Greiling.

DFL legislators say the state has reneged on its responsibility to adequately fund schools, which has forced school districts to seek more money by going to their voters to raise property taxes. Educators' hopes that legislators might add 1 or 2 percent to schools' general funding have been reduced by the disappointing budget forecast.

"What we are to be grateful for is we are not to be cut," said Dennis Carlson, assistant superintendent of Anoka-Hennepin schools. "We had hoped to get $3 million to $4 million out of the session to fill our deficit. ... We are very worried about 2010 and 2011. Without any more funding from the state, we'll be cutting $15 million to $15.5 million a year."

DFLers said Wednesday they are still hopeful they can get a modest funding bump this year. One proposal would raise that 1 percent in additional funding -- about $49 million -- in part by spending unused funds sitting in the state's Q-Comp fund, reserved for districts that want to overhaul the way they pay their teachers.

Some figure that the key to better funding for schools depends on a rebound in the economy, which could well take longer than a year.

"I don't see the state being in any better position a year from now," said Peggy Ingison, chief financial officer for Minneapolis schools and former Minnesota finance commissioner.

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547

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