Vote yes, then push hard to repair school funding

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Those who follow Northeaster editorials closely will probably think this one is a “no brainer” (an ironic choice of words, given the subject matter). Yes, we support the St. Anthony school district’s levy referendum and urge residents to vote “yes” on May 20. We don’t claim that it’s faultless, and we can’t say with certainty that it will solve the district’s financial problems.

Actually, in some ways, we wish the referendum wasn’t being held, so we wouldn’t have to support it. We don’t really like supporting it because the underlying education funding system is badly broken. Fixing it will be a huge political undertaking that should begin immediately.

So, with that glowing recommendation, how can we justify supporting a call for more money into a system we claim is broken? The answer is the simplest yet most important point in the discussion: It is today’s students.

It’s going to take a lot of years and political upheaval to cure what ails the school financing system. And as much as we’d like to say, “Don’t throw good money after bad,” our desire to change the system does not justify shortchanging today’s students.

As substantial as this tens-of-millions of dollars proposition is, it’s a drop in the bucket compared with what’s needed to do the education job reliably and correctly. It’s probably the best we can do for today’s students given today’s rules.

But we have to change the rules.

Under the outwardly-appealing doctrine of “local control,” residents elect community school boards to operate the schools in their communities. While they are increasingly controlled by rules and mandates from other governments, these boards are responsible for all the grunt work of running schools. They buy or lease every square inch of school real estate; they construct and maintain every school building; they hire, fire, promote, retire and pay benefits for every teacher, administrator, office worker, lunch room worker and janitor; they negotiate every labor contract; they buy or contract for every school bus, every person who drives them and every drop of fuel they use. They’re also responsible for establishing the local taxes that fund much of each district’s operation.

We could go on, but we think you get the picture. With all of this essential work to do, how much time do the board members—who are either volunteers or receive a small stipend—have to spend on tasks that can truly benefit from being handled by “local” people? We fear it’s not a lot. And in these times when expenses increase far faster than revenues, these people are also left to cut the programs, defer the maintenance, and go to their residents for what appears to be the “last ditch effort” of a single-district referendum. The basics—facilities, maintenance and personnel—are essential and don’t vary that much from district to district. They could and should be provided without the need for piecemeal tax increases.

Just how many of these boards does a place like Minnesota have—each doing this same exacting, exhausting, essential grunt work day after day, year after year? Does 34 sound like an excessive number in this highly-networked, instant-access-to data, technological age? It does to us. That’s the number of Minnesota school districts that begin with the letter M. Alphabet-wide, the number is 338.

With 338 boards scrambling to keep the roof from leaking and the teachers paid,is it any wonder that many of the districts seem to have trouble educating students as well as we all would like them to?

St. Anthony’s school board members shouldn’t have to go to the voters for maintenance money. But they do. And we say, “Give it to them.” But then, let’s fix the system. Statewide (or larger-area) standards and provisions for school facilities, maintenance and personnel would allow the school boards to concentrate more on education. Again, it will be a huge political undertaking. And we believe it will have huge educational benefits. The time to start is now.