Several Minnesota school districts are increasing the pressure for Gov. Mark Dayton to appoint a director of school trust lands, about 2.5 million acres of state forest land that generates revenue for schools primarily through the sale of timber and mining leases.
About a dozen school districts have passed resolutions calling on Dayton to appoint a director, a move they say was promised by late July. Some of those districts include: Virginia, Robbinsdale, Wayzata, White Bear Lake and Farmington. About two dozen districts are slated to take up similar resolutions Jan. 12.
"It's time for this to happen," said Tim Riordan, a Virginia Public Schools board member. "This has been going on four, five years now and it's time to have someone in place who is managing these lands to their fullest potential."
A spokesman for Dayton said Monday that the appointment should occur in early January.
Trust advocates are hopeful the appointment will occur then, but remain skeptical given the trust's long, arduous legislative path so far.
The land, mostly in northeastern Minnesota, was set aside almost 150 years ago by the state's forefathers with the stipulation that any proceeds from the property would benefit schoolchildren.
The parcels have historically been managed by the Department of Natural Resources, which has been accused of not doing enough to grow the trust's dollars.
Growing fund is an issue
Bipartisan legislation passed in 2012 created a commission to direct trust policy and established the position of director of school trust lands under the state Department of Administration.
A coalition of environmental groups unsuccessfully lobbied Dayton to veto the bill, arguing that the legislation would effectively shift control of the land to someone more interested in money than conservation.
In the spring, $185,000 was appropriated to fund the director's position, but an appointment has yet to be made, frustrating those who have lobbied for better oversight.
"The children, the beneficiaries of this trust fund, deserve someone who's going to give them their undivided loyalty and work, day in and day out, to manage the trust well," said Denise Dittrich, assistant director of government relations for the Minnesota School Boards Association.
She pointed to Utah, which shifted the management of its school trusts lands from a state agency to an independent agency in 1994. Since then, the state's Permanent School Fund has grown from about $50 million to $1.8 billion today.
Interest and dividends from school trust lands in Minnesota generated about $24 million in 2014.
Schools currently receive about $29 per pupil on an annual basis.
"I feel like once we have our own director who is able to have some professional staff, the money could improve even more," said Dittrich, a former legislator from Champlin.
The state school boards association recently adopted its legislative platform for 2015 and it includes urging Dayton to appoint a director.
Among districts adopting a similar resolution is North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale.
Superintendent Patty Phillips has long pushed for the school lands trust to yield bigger dividends for students.
"I know that Governor Dayton cares deeply about education and students in Minnesota," she said. "I feel confident this will happen."