Statewide task force wants to improve school financing

/ 3 October 2012 / eunice

Kim McGuire, Star Tribune, October 3, 2012 – Faced with what education officials say is a broken school funding system, a statewide task force is considering overhauling how Minnesota pays to educate students.

Among the options being considered by the task force: finding ways to help cover a projected $600 million gap in mandated special education costs, reducing schools’ reliance on property taxes in light of dwindling state and federal aid and clarifying how state aid to integrate schools should be spent.

“If we’re truly going to create and sustain a world-class system of public schools, we must find a way to fund them that is nimble, smarter and more accountable,” said Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.

When adjusted for inflation, general education revenue per student has remained fairly flat or declined slightly over the past decade. That’s excluding revenue raised through local referendums, which have become more frequent as schools rely more on property taxes to keep pace with the rising costs of transportation, staffing, technology and facility maintenance.

Last year, a record 132 school districts held referendums, most asking for renewals or increases in their operating levies.

“I’ve been to more and more meetings of various coalitions — faith groups, business groups — of people who are really upset about how education in Minnesota is being financed,” said Mary Cecconi, a task force member and executive director of Parents United for Public Schools. “I think they’re going to be the ones to really drive this conversation going forward.”

The task force, made up of teachers, administrators and parent group representatives, is tentatively scheduled to issue a slate of recommendations by the end of next month.

But first, the task force is embarking on a state tour to gather input from anyone interested in education finance reform. The first meeting was last week and others are scheduled from now until mid-November. Most meetings will be held at schools and education cooperatives.

At this point, it’s unclear whether legislators will act on any of the task force’s recommendations when they reconvene in January.

Some legislators are skeptical the task force’s work will influence future policy decisions.

“I think this is the fifteenth year there’s been an education task force looking at school funding,” said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, and head of the House committee on education finance. “In my opinion, this task force would have more credibility if they were issuing its recommendations before the election in November.”

The group first convened in 2011 and issued a set of recommendations just before the government shutdown. After receiving a grant, members restarted their work this summer, taking up issues that weren’t addressed the last time, such as the rising costs of special education.

Improving school funding was one of Gov. Mark Dayton’s top three priorities in his “Better Schools for a Better Minnesota” plan unveiled last year.