School Finance: The ‘Minnesota Embarrassment’

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For 20 years, lawmakers have been strangling Minnesota’s education budgets, forcing school officials to beg taxpayers to raise their own taxes.

This year, politicians approved a pathetic 2 percent increase in the state’s per-pupil formula for the coming school year and 1 percent the next. Then they patted each other on the back and grinned into the cameras, all the while knowing their insufficient budget rests on a tissue of lies.

Opinion: School Finance: The ‘Minnesota Embarrassment’ Minnesota 2020

The result of years and years of destructive pandering to taxpayers for short-term gains at the polls? Schools are jack-knifed into asking taxpayers to pay more taxes, or cut budgets already stretched as taut as a drumhead.

“The state Constitution obligates the state to provide uniform educational access to Minnesotans,” said Greg Vandal, the superintendent of Sauk Rapids-Rice district and the spokesman for PS Minnesota, an advocacy group for Minnesota schools. “More than 340 districts have to ask to raise the property tax to get the money. The state is not fulfilling its obligation,”

Take White Bear Lake, where a levy referendum failed last year. This November, voters will face a one-question ballot: Do you approve spending $1,470.89 per student? If not, this is what’s going to happen: Five schools will close; 110 teachers will be laid off, along with 80 staff members; school days will be shorter, high schoolers will have fewer course options and a required study hall; all music, media, physical education and gifted teachers will be removed from the elementary schools; class sizes increase to 32 in elementary, 36 in middle school and 39 in high school; special education services will be frozen or reduced; athletic offerings reduced or fees increased.

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Last spring, lawmakers and Gov. Tim Pawlenty approved a K-12 state budget that failed to recognize that the prices of electricity, heat, roof repair, health insurance and text books usually rise more than 2 percent each year.

Legislators did toss $300 million into special education budgets. What they didn’t tell taxpayers is that’s only half of what’s needed. For years, the state has required special education services while paying very little for them. To make up the difference, schools cut their operating budgets wafer thin.

Now the state is requiring students to achieve higher educational standards to be eligible for high school graduation.

“Schools are not afraid of the standards,” Vandal said. “We need to move the students into a 21st century economy and we need the schools to be accountable. We just need the state to give us the money to meet these standards.”

In November, Vandal’s Sauk Rapids-Rice district will ask voters for a levy increase for the first time in 10 years. Voters can’t say their schools have a fat budget. Last spring the district cut $750,000 in capital items such as computers and text books, Vandal said. The district also cut $1.5 million in staff and programs.

“We cut 23 teachers,” Vandal. “We’re a seniority-based system, so we lost the most in our elementary system. I have an eighth-grade teacher in kindergarten this year. Two out of every three teachers in the middle school are teaching something different this year.”

Local taxpayers pay not only for teachers and books, but also for state and federal programs that go underfunded. That leaves parents and teachers with the unpleasant job of persuading taxpayers to raise taxes.

“It’s a terrible way to fund schools,” said one school official with more than 20 years experience working on bond and levy initiatives. He asked not to be named for this story. “The Legislature is too [cowardly] to make decisions, so rather than allocate what schools need, they foist it off on school districts and make them run out and levy for the money.”

John Fitzgerald is a Minnesota 2020 Fellow. You can reach him at john.fitzgerald@mn2020.org.