Let’s fix school trust lands

/ 21 April 2012 / jennifer

Reps. Tim O’Driscoll and Denise Dittrich, St. Cloud Times, April 21, 2012 –

Many times those who hold public office are labeled as being too partisan and not willing to work together to solve problems. We’d like to share with you a story of how the Minnesota Legislature is working together in an unprecedented bipartisan fashion this session to bring about change that will benefit public schools in Minnesota.

House File 2244 is in conference committee and it will restructure the way school trust lands are managed in the state.

Like other states, when Minnesota was granted statehood, one section of land in each township was required to be set aside for the benefit of school-age children. These lands were to be managed in such a way that they would generate financial benefit to our public school students. Minnesota chose to set aside two sections of land in each township. Upon acceptance of this land grant, a permanent school trust fund was created. This fund generates interest and dividends, which are distributed each year to every school district.

There are more than 2.5 million acres of school land trust property being held in benefit for funding education. These lands fall under the management of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. While the DNR does a good job with wildlife management and preservation, the trust lands need to be managed to generate income for the schoolchildren. It’s a charge given to the Legislature and the governor in the state’s constitution.

As result of the current management structure, the DNR finds itself in a conflict of interest when attempting to manage state lands and school trust lands. Those who are supporting HF 2244 believe a change in management would remove the DNR’s conflict and allow for separate oversight and management of school trust lands. Simply stated: There is the potential for more money to educate our public school students.

While the DNR does a good job of producing income from forestry on the lands, according to recent reports, in the past two years the gross income has dropped 22 percent, while money transferred to the trust fund (net income) has dropped 84 percent. The expenses the DNR incurred have dramatically exceeded inflation. Income from the school trust lands have averaged $25 million in the past five years, and managing these lands more efficiently could increase net revenue to the permanent school trust fund.

HF 2244 passed the House with a bipartisan vote of 104-26, and the Senate with a bipartisan vote of 54-8. The differences in the bills should be settled in conference committee and the final bill must be re-passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor.

Almost 16 years ago, Utah separated its state’s school trust lands out from the management by its DNR and formed a separate management commission. During this 16-year period, Utah’s trust fund money grew from $18 million to $1.3 billion. This bill, we hope, will provide the framework to do the same for Minnesota students.

Please contact your legislators and encourage them to continue to support HF 2244. Also contact Gov. Mark Dayton and ask him to sign this strong bipartisan effort to reform school trust land management. After all, it’s for the kids.

This is the opinion of Reps. Tim O’Driscoll and Denise Dittrich. O’Driscoll is a Republican from Sartell representing District 14A. Dittrich is a DFLer from Champlin representing District 47A.