November 4, 2011

November 4, 2011

Great Schools Begin at the Ballot Box
Tuesday, November 8 is a critical day for our public schools. One in three districts will have levy questions on their ballots.

Please remember to vote.

A word about levies
This year, one-third of Minnesota school districts have operating levy questions on their ballots and half of these are “renewals” of levies passed years ago. A few historic facts about levies:

  1. Prior to 1990 a voter-approved local levy passed by a community had no end date (sunset). When a community passes a levy they are giving their duly elected school board authority to use some or all of those dollars as the school board sees fit. If a community believes the school board is not a good steward of the dollars, the recourse is electing new school board members.
     
  2. In the mid-1990s legislative changes were made that impacted today’s local levies environment:
    a.  School levies could last no longer than 10 years.
    b.  A “cap” was placed on how much a local school district could raise.
    c.  Levies could be run only on general election days (with few exceptions).

In other words, in the mid-1990s the legislature placed more restrictions on the ability of local school boards to raise dollars for their schools. This may have made some sense when voters were choosing a levy for “extras,” but since the state has pulled back from fully funding schools these levies now fund basic operating expenses.

Additionally, this year $2.8 billion dollars in state aid payments have been delayed to fill Minnesota’s budget shortfall. Minnesota is one of just two states that use school payment shifts to balance their budgets.

So where are we?

  • For 20 years, the per pupil formula, which provides the lion’s share of a school district’s funding, has increased on average 1.4% annually. During the same time period the CPI (Consumer Price Index) tracked inflation at 3.1%. …read more
     
  • Before 1990 fewer than half of school districts had operating levies; now over 90% rely on local voter-approved levies.
     
  • 2011 legislation provides school districts with just 60% of their funding in the current year and delays 40% to next year.
     
  • You may have heard schools will be getting new funding, but according to the Minnesota Department of Education, almost two-thirds of these dollars are “due to developments such as increased public school enrollment and more children qualifying for special education services and for programs geared toward low-income students,” Minnesota Republican calls for school levies in even years only, Pioneer Press, November 2, 2011.
     
  • According to the national Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Minnesota is providing 7.7% less funding per student than provided in 2008, New School Year Brings Steep Cuts in State Funding for Schools, October 7, 2011.
     
  • And the disparities between opportunities our schools can provide keep growing and growing …read more

And NOW what?
It is difficult enough for parents working to support local efforts to raise sufficient funds for their children’s schools; dealing with eleventh-hour grandstanding by a legislative leader is that much more egregious.

“The lead House Republican said Wednesday that he will propose legislation to require that school districts hold levy referendum elections in even-year elections only.”  Minnesota Republican calls for school levies in even years only, Pioneer Press, November 2, 2011.

Representative Garofalo cited data from the MDE that shows referendums pass at a 70% rate in odd-numbered years, and only at 52% in even-numbered years. His legislation will require schools to present ballot questions only in years when they are less likely to pass!

This seems to be a continuation of Representative Garofalo’s fight against local levies. If you are wondering if the majority of his caucus agrees with him, Speaker of the House Kurt Zeller’s letter to the Executive Director of the Minnesota School Boards Association seems to lay that idea to rest.

Wearing my former school board hat, I would have loved to have had the luxury of making planful school funding decisions two years in advance. However, the reality is every year we waited for the legislature to complete its work in May or June or July to find out in September what we were allowed to spend.

Representative Garofalo’s proposed legislation will require school boards to read the tea leaves to determine as much as two years in advance whether they will ask local taxpayers for aid. Here’s an idea: Instead of proposals to further restrict when districts can present referenda to voters, how about an adequate school funding formula that the state pays on time each year? This would move us in the direction we need—less reliance on local voter-approved levies.

This Week @ the Website

Mary Cecconi, Executive Director (mary@parentsunited.org)
Parents United for Public Schools
1667 Snelling Avenue N., St. Paul, MN 55108
651-999-7391
www.parentsunited.org

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