Seeking new ways to fund our schools

/ 15 November 2012 / eunice

Editorial, Star Tribune, November 15, 2012 – A majority of the Minnesota school districts that asked voters for money last week were successful. About three-quarters of the districts that put operating levies, bond issues or capital projects on the ballot received some or all of what they requested.

Those outcomes are generally good news for public schools. They show continued citizen support, even in this difficult economy. But the fact that those “yes” votes were needed at all points to a fundamental problem with Minnesota’s K-12 financing.

State school districts are the only local units of government that must periodically go back to voters for operating funds. Counties and cities don’t have to put chunks of their budgets on the line for public vote every few years — and schools shouldn’t have to do so, either.

During this election cycle, only 40 of the state’s 330 districts put operating levies on their local ballots. Among those that passed, about half were seeking to renew existing levies. “Yes” votes on renewals don’t trigger tax increases — they simply maintain levies that were approved anywhere from two to 10 years ago.

In the metro area, St. Paul and Richfield were fortunate to have both renewals and additional funds approved last week. Elk River residents passed a renewal, but Osseo voters turned down a request for operating funds and a capital levy for technology.

For many districts that use renewals to maintain funding levels, budget cuts still may be necessary in the face of inflation and other cost increases. Without new approaches to school funding in Minnesota, the referendum-renewal cycle will continue.

It’s not a fair or efficient way to fund basic school needs. Because the state share of school funding has eroded over the past decade, the reliance on local referendums has increased. Today, 90 percent of all state school districts use voter-approved dollars to support basic operations.

Referendum campaigns take time, energy and resources that could be better applied elsewhere. If the basic costs of education were covered by the state, the parent and community volunteer efforts now focused on winning elections could be redirected to improve educational outcomes for kids.

To address the referendum and other funding issues, a state education work group has been meeting for the past several months. Appointed by state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, the group expects to adopt recommendations later this month and deliver them to the governor to be included in his 2013 budget plan. Among the finance reform ideas under consideration is increasing per-pupil general education aid to replace some local referendum dollars.

As the 2013 Legislature discusses K-12 financing, lawmakers should consider that approach and other innovative ways to reduce the growing reliance on local referendums. Relying too heavily on referendum results has contributed to unacceptable funding disparities between school districts and detracted from the state’s constitutional promise to provide equal education opportunity for all.