ST. PAUL — School officials on Wednesday called Minnesota’s method of funding public education a “nightmare” and “broken.” The comments came a week before the unveiling of a proposal to overhaul the system.
At a House of Representatives hearing, administrators, teachers and parents from St. Cloud and other parts of the state pleaded with lawmakers to take school funding off property taxes.
“We have school supporters who tell us they won’t be voting for any more levies,” said Joanne Dorsher, St. Cloud school board member. “They’re sending a message to the Legislature to fix it at the state level.”
On the same day, a liberal think tank discussed the results of a survey they sponsored of the state’s school superintendents. It showed 96 percent of respondents said the current funding system is bad for education and students.
“We’re on the brink of lots of districts around the state seeing financial instability and going into statutory debt,” said Tom Westerhaus, president of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators and former Rocori school district superintendent. “It’s a nightmare.”
Westerhaus, who took part in the anonymous online survey of superintendents coordinated by Minnesota 2020, said most Minnesota school districts are no longer able to maintain educational efforts without asking local residents to supplement state education dollars with local property taxes.
“We strongly recommend a new system for funding schools that does not rely on local referendums,” the Prior Lake/Savage school superintendent said.
State legislators in 2001 engineered an overhaul of the state’s tax system, which was supposed to fully fund the educational system without property taxes.
But by 2006, school districts were once again levying an average of $796 per student, more than the $666 per student level in 2001.
Increasing costs, federal and state mandates and flat state revenues are common reasons for the levies’ return.
House K-12 Finance Committee Chairwoman Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, has a proposal, expected to be unveiled next week, on new public education funding that would take property taxes out of the equation again.
Based on the efforts of a group called PS Minnesota — a coalition of educators, parents and administrators — the proposal would likely cost $1 billion more per year than current state efforts.
Greiling is a proponent of an income tax increase that would restore a top-tier tax bracket on households that earn $400,000 or more per year, which could be used to fund the new formula.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Dorsher and St. Cloud School Superintendent Bruce Watkins walked Greiling’s committee through the ramifications of last year’s defeated property tax levy to maintain $4.5 million in school programming.
The school will have to ask voters again to approve a levy this year to avoid what Watkins called a “spiral” of program cuts and student losses that leads to more lost revenue and another round of cuts.
“The funding system is broken,” Watkins said. “Property taxes are the most resented system of taxation we have.”
Watkins also recommended the state reduce or eliminate unfunded mandates on local school districts and take over the duties of bargaining with school employee labor groups, to help even out costs.
A new funding formula will not be enacted this year, but supporters hope to have something legislative candidates can campaign on this fall, said Mary Cecconi, executive director of Parents United for Public Schools, an advocacy group.