The Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district had a problem last year. A $500,000 problem. They wanted to build a second transportation hub, a home base for the state’s largest district-run fleet of buses.
Officials calculated that constructing the facility would save up to $500,000 a year. But the district needed the legislature’s permission to use lease-levy money to fund something that didn’t directly affect kids’ education.
Gone are the days when districts waited quietly and watched state legislators make educational decisions all on their own. Increasingly, school boards are getting political and putting forward their own legislative priorities, hoping to influence legislators’ thinking on a variety of issues, many of them budgetary.
Because school district officials included the transportation hub in their legislative priorities, they received authorization to spend the money and build it.
“It wouldn’t have been [included in the bill] if we hadn’t been actively pursuing that legislation,” said Tony Taschner, district spokesman and the staff member on the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan legislative action committee.
The district created its own legislative action committee three years ago to come up with priorities, which the school board then approves.
This year, the Lakeville district formalized its priorities by creating a set of resolutions for the first time in years, said board member Michelle Volk. The resolutions the board chose — along with other districts’ priorities — were sent to the Minnesota School Boards Association (MSBA), where they were voted on by 150 delegates from various school boards. Volk was a Lakeville delegate.
“I think it helps the legislators understand the unique situations that each school district comes across,” Volk said. “So it kind of helps you to have a bigger voice.”
The Farmington school board has discussed creating a platform in the future, said Sally Reynolds, district spokeswoman.
Whether a district creates a platform itself or advocates for priorities through a larger organization, more districts are throwing their hats into the political ring than ever before.
“I can tell you, 20 years ago, you didn’t see this at all,” said Grace Keliher, chief lobbyist for MSBA.
A decade ago, districts started becoming more political. Now, when the MSBA trains school board members, how to “share your district’s story” with legislators is something that’s always covered.
“It is a way of sharing, especially with local legislators, what are your critical priorities,” she added.
School districts got involved in the political process because they are so dependent on state funding, she said.
Some districts, like Rochester, Austin and Bemidji, are active politically, she said, but it’s hard to pin down numbers on how many districts create priorities or are otherwise involved in the legislative process.
This year’s priorities
Keliher said the priorities are different every year, and it’s interesting to see which ones many districts agree on, whether they are big or small, rural or in the metro area.
This year, “issues around teacher shortages are huge,” she said, and that’s reflected in one of MSBA’s priorities.
Other priorities include getting the Legislature to add $300 per pupil to the general education formula, providing equitable access to technology and supporting teacher evaluation, including Q Comp, with appropriate resources.
Many school boards this year also advocated for Gov. Mark Dayton to hire a director of the School Trust Lands by passing resolutions.
Those lands include 2.5 million acres of state forests that generate revenue for schools mostly through the sale of timber and mining leases. That item is on the MSBA platform.
Many districts belong to other organizations which also advocate on their behalf. The Association of Metropolitan School Districts (AMSD) is one group, and Schools for Equity in Education (SEE) is another.
One district’s approach
Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, the state’s fourth largest district, approved three priorities for 2015. They “do align fairly closely with other organizations’ [priorities],” said Taschner.
A benefit of creating priorities at a district level is that organizations must cater to many districts’ needs. A single district can be as specific or broad as it wants.
A goal is to “focus in on three areas, and try to be brief,” said Taschner.
Funding is always topic number one, he said.
The district’s first priority this year is to “provide financial stability for schools by indexing basic E-12 funding to inflation.” Many years of funding at levels that were flat or less-than-inflation have resulted in budget cuts and instability, the document says.
The two other priorities were also included last year: funding space, safety and technology needs and increasing local district control or reducing unfunded mandates.
The burden of unfunded mandates, or changes the federal or state government requires schools to make with no additional funding, is dramatic, said Taschner. Last year, $26 million in special education costs were the result of unfunded mandates, amounting to 8 percent of the district’s total operating budget.
On top of creating priorities, Superintendent Jane Berenz also maintains relationships with legislators, asking them to sit down and discuss different issues.
“Jane has done a marvelous job staying connected,” said Taschner.