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Students at at Garlough Elementary School in West St. Paul

Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

A case for voter help

“I am not one of those superintendents who believe more money is the answer to solve the problems within education. But when you are faced with unfunded mandates both on the state and federal level, it becomes a very difficult situation.”

Stillwater Superintendent COREY LUNN, who says the new state money won’t change district plans to ask voters to renew an excess levy.

Minnesota school finance issues persist

  • Article by: Editorial Board
  • Star Tribune
  • July 8, 2013 - 9:41 PM

It’s a legitimate question for many Minnesota taxpayers: If the 2013 Legislature did so much to boost education funding, why are many local districts still seeking more through ballot referendums this fall?

After finishing their work in May, some lawmakers touted 2013 as the “education session’’ because they added $485 million in new dollars for budgets covering preschool to high school. But for many districts, that additional amount barely keeps up with rising costs and inflation. And some of the state funds won’t kick in until 2015, which means districts will have to tap reserves, borrow, cut programs and staff, or go to voters to balance this year’s budgets.

Still, school leaders must be prepared to make tough decisions as they head into contract negotiations with teachers and other school staff. Some provisions in contracts, such as steps and lanes that produce automatic pay increases for longevity and education, should be reconsidered.

In 2008-09, state teachers received an average pay raise of 2.4 percent. The average increase then fell below 1 percent until the past school year, when it stood at 1.08 percent, according to Education Minnesota teacher union data.

But that doesn’t include increases that occur due to steps and lanes. The National Education Association reports that Minnesota teachers earn an average of $54,959 annually — less than the national average of $56,643 but more than their peers in Iowa and South Dakota.

Part of this year’s state funding increase will boost the basic per pupil amount of $5,224 by 1.5 percent each year — $78 extra dollars in 2014 and another $80 in 2015. That’s the biggest percentage increase on the basic school aid formula since 2007-08, when schools received an extra 2.5 percent, or $100 per pupil. Still, after payment shifts, reductions and flat funding, this year’s bump brings state funding levels back only to what they were seven years ago.

That’s why art classes won’t be restored at Lakeville elementary schools next year and why Stillwater is considering going to a four-day week.

In Anoka-Hennepin, the state’s largest district, the new state funds helped reduce the projected deficit. But board members there still recently approved a budget and a $7.5 million shortfall that probably will be covered by reserve funds.

And in Minneapolis, a $3 million increase will have a relatively small impact on a $525 million school budget.

According to the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, about half of the metro school districts are expected to present ballot measures in November. Statewide, about 72 (roughly 20 percent) of the 340 districts say they are planning ballot measures either to renew existing levies or generate new dollars.

Keep in mind that almost a quarter of the new money approved this session will fund all-day kindergarten throughout Minnesota. For districts that offer full-day kindergarten for a fee, the state funds won’t be an increase. Rather, what parents were paying will simply be replaced by the state. Still, those dollars, as well as almost $30 million in special-education and other aid adjustments, won’t get to districts until 2015.

Significant funding increases also are in store for next year as a result of legislative tweaks to the state tax bill. Key among them is the ability for school boards to levy up to $300 per pupil without voter approval. That will certainly be helpful for property-poor districts that have been unable to pass levies.

At the same time, it remains unfair that so many districts must rely so heavily on local property taxes for basic operations. No other local unit of government has to go repeatedly to voters to shore up a basic budget.

That’s why state policymakers should seriously examine the school funding reform plans that have been offered over the years. And it’s why local school boards must make more of the same hard employer choices that private industry has had to make.

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